Foday Musa Suso absorbed centuries of tradition growing up in Gambia. As part of the griot caste, his family had performed a centuries-long role in Gambian society, narrating historical epics and singing praise songs while playing the kora, a harplike 21-string instrument his distant ancestors invented. Suso dreamed of bringing his music to places far away—places represented in his mind by American recordings that would become, along with the music of his own people, his artistic guides.
“Since I was seven years old, I always wanted to play my instrument for the whole world to hear me, but I didn’t know how to do it,” Suso says. “In Africa, I would hear blues and jazz players singing. I’d never see them. I would say to myself, ‘Well, if I did how these people do, then when I play, the world would hear me.’ That’s just what happened.”
That impulse took Suso to Chicago in autumn 1977. He and Chicago-born percussionist Adam Rudolph had met in Ghana in the mid-1970s, where they’d decided to start a kora band in the United States. Rudolph was barely out of his teens, but he’d already enjoyed myriad cross-cultural experiences. Growing up in Hyde Park, he sat in with African American hand drummers who gathered at Promontory Point and with the band of jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson. As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, he designed his own course in ethnomusicology, and on the trip to Ghana where he met Suso, he absorbed African music at its source.
The two musicians planned to work together in Chicago, but Suso was especially eager to put their plans into action. When he arrived here, he moved in with Rudolph at the drummer’s parents’ house, and they immediately began assembling Mandingo Griot Society, which blended Suso’s kora playing with American popular music.
Suso and Rudolph practiced in the basement, and Rudolph invited his friend, drummer Hank Drake (now known as Hamid Drake), to play with them. Bassist Joseph Thomas joined after finishing a tour with soul group Brighter Side of Darkness. During rehearsals, Thomas followed along as Suso transposed his kora lines, and he bonded with the Gambian musician on another level—he’d been inspired by influential books and movies of the time, which advocated for stronger ties among the people of the African diaspora.
“Alex Haley’s book Roots was out, and I was connecting all the dots,” Thomas says. “Suso was fascinating. It was history in song. He was telling me certain things were not written, were done in song because of the griots.”
The midwestern group’s collaborative format embodied a mutually appreciative exchange of global sounds years before the coinage of the term “world music.” The band’s impact on musicians and audiences still resonates.
“We had to keep the sense of the traditional music but also not neglect where we were coming from with R&B, funk, and jazz,” Drake says. “Suso was able to do his thing, but we were able to find a way to complement him but also stay true to ourselves. So the magic happened, and it developed more and more as it went along.”
Chicagoans proved receptive. Rudolph called Anderson for a gig, and the saxophonist offered them his club at the time, called the Birdhouse. Mandingo Griot Society also became a big draw at Wise Fools Pub in Lincoln Park.
“We were the treat of Lincoln Avenue,” Thomas says. “Our shows had people standing down the block. I had never seen all those shades, all those tones out in the audience until Mandingo played. I told my mother, ‘Mom, people from all over the world come to see us.’”
Suso adds, “My audience is for everybody, Black and white, because I’m not into segregation. When we’d play, everybody would come out and dance.”
One of those who came out was Bruce Kaplan, owner of Chicago folk-music label Flying Fish. Even though there was no meaningful commercial precedent for Mandingo Griot Society’s music, he signed them—and he didn’t balk at coming up with extra money to invite jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who was based in Sweden, to play on their first LP. The musicians admired Cherry, who’d been including ideas from around the world in his innovative music since the 1960s. Rudolph produced their self-titled debut album, which was recorded at Curtom (Curtis Mayfield’s studio) and released in 1978. The result captures the jubilance and mutual affinity in the band’s cross-cultural blend.
“Don Cherry used to say the kora is the gateway to Africa for people always listening to diatonic music,” Rudolph says, referring to the particular scales that make Western music familiar to its listeners. “There’s something very accessible about the kora. And the grooves—Hamid, Joe, and I had it on lockdown! So what’s not to like?”
Mandingo Griot Society toured internationally and released a couple more albums, Mighty Rhythm (also on Flying Fish) in 1982 and Watto Sitta (on the Celluloid label) in 1984, which included guests such as jazz great Herbie Hancock. But the band’s popularity meant individual members were in increased demand for other projects.
Eventually, the musicians of Mandingo Griot Society wound up living in separate cities and building their own careers. Suso remained in Chicago but mostly worked out of town, with artists including Philip Glass to Pharoah Sanders. He still participates in such collaborations, though he’s moved around and currently lives outside Seattle. Rudolph relocated to California, then New Jersey, and devised an original large-scale approach to composition through his Go: Organic Orchestra. Drake continues to work in Chicago and worldwide with many jazz, free-improvisation, and folk ensembles, including regular local solstice concerts with fellow percussionist Michael Zerang. Thomas lives in Logan Square and performs with several blues artists.
Nowadays, local access to a range of African idioms is far greater than it was in the mid-1970s. Area colleges and universities provide a host of ethnomusicology courses. The Old Town School of Folk Music offers classes in African instruments and dances. Especially since the start of the World Music Festival in 1999, musicians from the continent have made Chicago a regular stop.
Some locally based groups also echo Mandingo Griot Society’s globally oriented approach. They include Natural Information Society, which also counts Drake as a member; the ensemble features African instruments in minimalist pieces incorporate jazz improvisation, distinctive melodic patterns, and a flowing approach to time. Natural Information Society’s bassist, Joshua Abrams—who also plays the guimbri, a kind of bass lute from North Africa—cites Mandingo Griot Society and Cherry’s work as influences on how these groups “look to the possibilities and implications of rhythm as a guide and form of understanding” and create a sound with “simultaneous layers interweaving.”
The success of Natural Information Society and Mandingo Griot Society also affirms that Chicago is a great city to develop new music and attract people willing to give experimental sounds a chance. In recalling Mandingo Griot Society, Rudolph makes another connection—between his earlier group and his former Hyde Park neighbors in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who built an audience here for their original compositions. Despite lacking the resources available to artists who sign with major record labels, they were able to preserve their independence and creative freedom because they had live, local support.
“One thing I liked about Chicago was that community sense, where you could develop things where you’re maybe not under certain kinds of pressures,” Rudolph says. “We were totally a Chicago group.”