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Max Baillie and Suntou Susso

Max Baillie and Suntou Susso

Kora master meets violin virtuoso

Coinciding with the release of his debut album Kanéfonyo (Never Give Up) Gambian kora player Suntou Susso is touring the UK this year in various (mostly folk-oriented) venues. One of the earliest of his shows was a concert in St John’s Church, St Leonards on 26 March, where an enthusiastic audience listened in awe to the extraordinary sounds Susso could conjure from this instrument. Victoria Kingham praises this remarkable kora maestro who is coming back to play in St Leonards at the end of April.

Susso isn’t the first Gambian kora player to have had collaborative success in the UK. His kinsman and fellow-griot Jally Kebba Susso is based here and has performed at the Albert Hall, among other places. But Jally Kebba is interested to develop a much more techno, crossover, electro-African sound whereas Suntou’s sound is primarily classical Kora. It’s wonderfully complex, with an alternating resonant bass interspersed with a stream of harmonic notes made by the thumbs.

There’s a long history of the harp-like instrument in West Africa. An area of the River Niger was the homeland to the Mandé people, and crosses areas of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and Bamako. Senegambian Mandinka have a musical heritage going back a thousand years and the instrument has origins in the 1700s.

It’s a magic sound – a tradition of actual magic surrounds its possession and playing and those people who play are aware of the tradition. I often wonder if it’s this acknowledgment of their place in cultural history which makes African instrumentalists, and Kora players in particular, so very distinctive and compelling.

An Anglican church in St Leonards on the South Coast of England may seem a far cry from its African home, but nevertheless was a reminder of the general position of music, originating as a religious vehicle. Max Baillie, violinist and concert organiser, delights in unusual, world-wide musical associations. So far he has organised concerts here in Hastings playing a violin along with a Hungarian Cimbalom, a Swedish nyckelharpa, a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, and now a Gambian kora. The first half of the concert was solo Susso, amply demonstrating an easy virtuosity, filling the church with glorious cascades of notes positioned somewhere in between the swing of the rhythmic bass. It’s played to a pulse rather than a time signature, one thumb for each part of the melody, resonating in a beautiful circular body bound in cowhide.

The second half of the concert was an extended improvisation between Susso and Max Baillie. They have only played one concert together but as a performance it was unique. Essentially you might call it specialist jazz, with a glorious call-and-response structure and a dynamic ebb and swell, with the violin sometimes taking up the rhythm and sometimes adding a melodic pizzicato. An added highlight was that Susso, towards the end of the concert, demonstrated his virtuosity on the djembe (hand drum) while Baillie added a melody.

Susso enjoys inviting audience participation and in true Hastings style the audience clapped (and even danced) enthusiastically. The audiences here are special, and appreciate the privilege they have of watching some of the best musical performances in the country. Susso is playing here again at the end of April, this time with folk fiddle-player Ross Grant, and it will be interesting to see how the very different violin style blends with the kora.

Suntou Susso returns to St Leonards on 26 April at Crown House. A few tickets left available from Eventbrite.

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Posted 12:45 Wednesday, Apr 3, 2024 In: Music & Sound

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