It’s a daunting task to write your lifestory… I am still young but so many things have already happened. Where to start? I embrace the challenge and will tell my story in the only way I know, starting from the beginning…
I was born on 14th February 1978 in Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance in Southern Senegal. Ziguinchor is a dusty and vibrant city where people of different ethnicities live along side one another. Their many musical traditions coexist and often come together, making my home town one of the most interesting and inspiring musical centres in West Africa.
I was raised by my mother’s family, the Cissokho’s in my grandparents’ house. So I grew up side by side with my uncles and aunties. We are a family of kora players, a traditional Griot family where music and stories are passed down through generations from father to son. I was educated in this traditional way and you could say I was destined to become a kora player. Music was part of my everyday life whether in my grandfather’s compound, out in the streets or as the centre of the many local celebrations. Once this music becomes part of you it sticks with you your whole life.
There is no formal route to becoming a kora player, you just have to listen, memorise, and experiment, then keep trying til you get it right. In my grandfather’s house, you are taught how to build a kora at the age of 7, then by 14 you start experimenting and learning the repertoire. Only when you have earned it do you have a kora built for you. I got my first kora when I was 18!
Traditionally, you only learn the music and stories from your own family. In my family this included kora music and the drumming associated with it which we call ‘Jali dundun’. But as a child I was also intrigued and inspired by drumming rhythms outside of my own, so I decided to learn and study some without telling my grandfather. I started on Seourouba with Souti Silamé. Then on Sabar with Pa Cor N’diaye and Djembé with “Machine” Sylla. I remember skiving off school to go and perform with my teachers. By the end of my formal training at home, my outside interests were exposed, and I got caught out. I was told off by my grandfather who was worried of my whereabouts because I was only a child. But then my family discovered my skills and I became the main drummer in my family.
By the age of 10 I was following my uncles and cousins everywhere and drumming at their concerts all over the region. Then at the age of 17, my uncle Solo Cissokho entered me and his young brother in a talent competition. And we won! This was the beginning of my international career. We were invited to Norway to take part in a collaboration with musicians from Cuba, India and Scandinavia. The project toured all over Norway including at the Forde Festival. After this came a tour in India where i was amazed by the genius of Indian violinist Dr L Subrimaniam. I returned to Norway from India and moved too the UK in 1998.
In 1999, my daughter Bintou was born so I relocated to the UK to be with her. As soon as I arrived, Martin and Su from Baka Beyond, who I had met in Ziguinchor a few years earlier, invited me to join the band as a drummer. This was the beginning of busy touring life with concerts all over Europe and North America. I had other projects including working with Peter Badejo OBE in creating music for Contemporary African Dance. I took part in the premiere of the Lion King in London. I taught and prepare for the first Kora exams at SOAS (School of African and Oriental Studies).
While not touring I started teaching drumming to children in schools, some as young as 4 years old. This is something I still do today whenever I have the time. I found a strong community of drummers around the UK and became a regular teacher at drumming festivals across the UK. Actually many people from this community became true friends. Until 2000 I was mostly working as a drummer and I loved it. I was earning my life as a musician, I was meeting new musicians everyday, going to new places, meeting new friends. But something was missing. Kora playing was always a part of what I did but I felt it was time for me to come back to it on a more intense basis. It was calling me… and I followed. Thus began my return to the kora. I never fully left the drumming world in this time and when in 2005 I met one of the greatest living Djembe drumming masters Mamady Keita it was a dream for me. I learned so much from him and was truly honoured when he invited me to perform and record “live at Couleur Café” a CD/DVD in Belgium in 2006. There are other exciting organisations involved in drumming since th 2000 like Sewabeats, Music for Change and Womad Foundation.
You know as a kora player, you learn the traditional repertoire. By the time I was about 18 years old I knew it, but it is what you do with this knowledge that really determines your life as a kora player. So that was my new direction. In 2000, I had some new songs and it was time to record them. Martin and Su helped me make my first solo album “Baiyo” (later retittled Mali by the label!!) , meaning Orphan, and performed in a few songs.
The defining theme of the album came about almost by accident… One day I was looking after my daughter and trying to get some writing done. I started playing to find that I had tuned up wrong. Strangely enough, I loved what I heard and tried to build on it. It was different, and did take me a while to get used to but with some hard work and an open mind I developed this new configuration further. The result was Tamala, the first track I ever recorded with one of my new experimental tunings.
In 2001 and 2002, I toured with ‘Baiyo’ in amazing places and started to make a name for myself as a kora player. I played at many festivals; Glastonbury, Sacred Music festival in Ireland, and my first Womad in the UK which then took me to Singapore, Australia and The Canary Isles. I was also so happy and proud to open a club concerts for Salif Keita on his Moffou tour and Youssou N Dour Colston Hall show in Bristol on his From village to Town album tour.
In 2003, I invited 8 members of my family and 3 great musician friends to breath new life into a project that my uncle Solo had started, the Jalikunda project. This was my family’s music, a family project, with the family band. After my first solo album, I felt ready to produce and arrange the family album. We called it ‘Lindiane’ after the suburb where we grew up. We toured it all over the UK, Spain and Sweden.
In 2004, I again felt it was time to experiment with something new. I wanted to work in a smaller band to try a different style of music. I wanted to work with Juldeh Camara, an amazing Riti player (one string violin). I also approached my good friend Davide Mantovani, a fabulous and eclectic bass player, and my young brother Surahata Susso, already a promising musician at the age of 17.
Right from the first, this combination of musicians felt special. I felt so free and new tuning configurations would come to me almost effortlessly, my tunings became my signatures. This was a band where we all felt we grew as musicians, it was a challenge for each of us, we were coming together from such different musical backgrounds and trying to create something new to us all.
Quite early on, it became clear that JuldehI wouldn’t be able to stay with us long term, we needed to find another musician. So Davide recommended Samy Bishai who he knew from the London scene. We met up for an initial audition and immediately we connected. He is such a flexible violinist, which is hard to find in classically trained musicians. He also brought his Egyptian roots with him which had a strong influence a few of my songs including Mande Arab.
By the end of 2006 the album ‘Tama Silo: Afro Mandinka Soul’ was released and I felt ready to take this music back home to Senegal and showcase it to my family and friends there. While I was there I asked my younger sister Binta Suso to join in on a few songs. Again, it all connected straight away. When we toured back in England without her, we felt a bit empty, So she came to work with us on the next album, ‘The Silimbo Passage’ released in mid 2008.
The whole project was so successful that with the band alone, I’ve done 400 concerts in 30 countries since 2004! This obviously was amazing but at the same time, I and other members of the band were a little worried about the impact of our activity on the planet. So in 2007 we made a pledge to reduce our carbon foot as much as possible in all aspects of our work, including administration, marketing, management and transport. Some of the tours have been offset to finance green project in the UK and East Africa. Of course we could always do more, but we are trying our best! Other key projects that started in 2007 includes an innovative and interactive project in which audience particpation is fully part of the show! It is called Do you Speak Djembe? On this I work closely with Doug Manuel ( founder of the show and Director of Sewabeats) and Philip Fournier (Lyon Symphonic Orchestra Director).
Recently I launched a partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross. I feel privileged to be able to live off my music and I want to go one step further. I want to be able to support the work of a humanitarian organisation that is close to my heart: The Red Cross. They have been working in my country for a long time and they are always present in places where people need it most. Since 1 Nov 2010, 50% of proceeds from sales of The Silimbo Passage are donated to the ICRC.
On this extraordinary journey I have met wonderful people from all walks of life; musicians, promoters and audience members alike and many have become friends. Touring is not a glamorous activity, it is very tiring, but the reward is immense. It’s is all worth it in the end. I feel blessed and I am looking forward to the next part of the journey…. like my new album.