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Tune In: Sura Susso

My Magazine 2023/02
22 min
In this month's edition of Tune In, we were honoured to host a famous player of the mystical string, the kora, Sura Susso. Known for his captivating wide smile and passionate, seemingly effortless playing, Sura is one of the respected griots in The Gambia and well-known in many African and European countries as well.

We started our chat with a question about his loyal companion - the kora, and what, in his opinion, makes it special among others. Sura explains that he inherited the knowledge and passion for the instrument, which—very importantly—originates from The Gambia, his parents and their parents before them. The line goes back to the 13th century and has a great history. The skill was passed down from father to son, generation to generation, and up to him. So Sura feels it has been a privilege to be one of the players of this instrument.

By his father's words, Sura started his journey with the kora at the age of four by playing around with it. He learned a lot about the kora only by hearing how it was played because he listened to when and how people played it. So whenever the one playing it would drop it, Sura would pick it up and start playing, and that is how he gradually learned and mastered the skill.

The inspiration for this authentic music came from his uncle from his mother’s side of the family—his mum also came from a famous kora-playing family. He mentioned his mum passed away about 25 years ago, and he emotionally shares memories of her from his childhood. "She was always singing, and when she was cooking, I was always around her. She would play music on the bowls and the plates". That also inspired him to become a percussionist—he plays various drums.

He grew up in a musical family and, at one point in his life, travelled to Ziguinchorr, where his mum was born. There he found much knowledge from her side of the family, especially about the Senegalese way of tuning the kora, which is different from the Gambian. He explains that the kora has many different tunings in different countries around the world—there is also something like a western tuning. He was interested in learning all these tunings and not only based his melodies on the Gambian way. We believe his passion for exploring, combining techniques, and learning made him reach all international stages and become a renowned kora player abroad. 

When he went to school, he was not really interested in anything other than his kora. He wanted the instrument to become his best friend; he wanted to journey, grow, and conquer the world with the instrument. The connection he had with the instrument and seeing his dad making a career with the Kora playing were a big inspiration for him to decide to make it his career path as well.

When he was in high school, his elder brother came to his dad and told him that he wanted to take Sura to England. Having had a band there, he wanted Sura to go and play the drums with him on a six-month tour. His dad accepted the idea under the condition that Sura would come back after the tour finished his education. So, when he went to England, the fantastic band did a tour of England, Sweden, and Norway. By then, he was seventeen years old. After six months, he returned to The Gambia to continue his education. But he received an email saying the band has a lot of bookings in America and so many other places. He went on the second tour for another eight months. The tour was a success, and since then, the bookings have kept coming until his education collapsed and his music career blossomed.

The way to establish his solo kora career was by putting together a band with some bass guitar players he met and friends that are good musicians. After some promotional gigs and concerts, at some point, the band had something like a break for them to explore different things and come back again after. That is when his solo career took off.

Photo Credit: Sura Susso FB profile

He has since looked up to veteran artists such as Jaliba Kuyateh, who inspired him in his song writings; Tara Dinding, who inspired him greatly in his amazing kora playing and the way he energetically presented on stage; Alhaji Mbaye, who was a great historian and had a very melodious way of playing the kora, which he greatly admires; Bai Conteh, his all-time favourite Gambian kora player; and others.

Sura said he enjoys writing songs, but the kora and the percussion are his strongholds.

95% of his performances are international, yet he performs in The Gambia every time he returns—roughly six anticipated visits a year. He dreams of returning to share and collaborate with people and giving more of his time to The Gambia. He goes to bed every day thinking of bringing up a course for young people interested in learning the kora. We sure hope he realises his dreams as the skills and tradition of kora playing must be preserved for future generations.

The message for his fellow Gambians is to try and stop littering. The country is so beautiful, but the plastics and papers being thrown all over the place really break his heart. He encouraged a change in mentality to keep the country clean, which is a way of gaining respect from every visitor of the country.

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Portrait: Mamat Sallah
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