From 'Technicians of the Sacred (expanded)': Papa Susso, with Bob Holman, 'How Kora Was Born'
This story begins long long long long ago
So long ago that it was a place not a time
There was a man
He was so alone
The only person he could talk to was Africa
Luckily there was a tree nearby
Even more luckily behind that tree
That’s where his partner was hiding
All the sun and all the water were condensed
Into a single tiny block
Which the man planted in the sandy soil
He blew and he blew on that spot
Each time he blew he thought he heard something
What he was hearing was of course his partner singing
The man didn’t even know what singing was
Because he could only talk
He couldn’t sing yet
So he blew and he listened, blew listened blew listened
And the plant pushed out dark green
And began to twist and grow
A vine reaching for the breath
And stretching towards the song
(Because it was made from sun and rain, remember?)
So at the end of the vine that was the calabash
And the tree it was not a tree anymore
It was the neck and handles
That was when the man’s partner Saba Kidane
Came out into the open (but that’s another story)
And the breath and the singing and the vine?
Well, there are 21 strings, what do you think?
And now you say what about the bridge and the cowhide
And the rings that tie the strings to the neck
So you can tune the kora
Hey, what about the thumbtacks that hold
The cowhide taut over the calabash
And the resonator hole
Well you go right on talking about all that
I’m playing kora now
Next time I’ll tell you about the cow
Source: Translation by Bob Holman & Papa Susso, from B. Holman, Sing This One Back to Me, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2013.
Susso’s art as a griot (a jeli in Mandinkan) is firmly rooted, by his continuing account, in the Mandinkan oral tradition but has moved through translation & collaboration with U.S. poet Bob Holman into a written form that treated “melodies as speech,” as Susso has it, thereby changing “songs” to “poems.” Concerning Susso & the traditions from which his work derives, his official “biography” reads:
lhaji Papa Susso (Suntu), master kora player, traditional musician, oral historian, virtuoso and director of the Koriya Musa Center for Research in Oral Tradition, was born on the 29th of September, 1947, in the village of Sotuma Sere in the Upper River Division of The Republic of Gambia, West Africa.
Papa Susso hails from a long line of Griots (traditional oral historians). His father taught him to play the kora when he was five years old. The kora was invented by the "Susso" family of the Mandinka tribe of the great Manding Empire. It is a 21-stringed harp-lute unique to the westernmost part of Africa and is meant to be played only by the Jeli (professional musicians, praise singers and oral historians), who were traditionally attached to the royal courts. Their duties included recounting tribal history and genealogy, composing commemorative songs and performing at important tribal events.
Papa Susso is a Muslim by religion. He has traveled quite extensively to East, West and Central Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Canada, and the United States of America, spreading his special message of peace and love.
Current performances are now available at YouTube & elsewhere on the internet.
Poems and poetics