Interview \\Huw Bennett and the Susso project’s deep cross cultural sound

Moved by his time in Gambia in 2016, double bassist and producer Huw Bennett returned to the UK with music that pays homage to the oral histories of the Mandinka people. On his album Keira, Bennett, producer of Susso project, balances field recordings with an electronic edge. An intriguing meld of societal interactions are documented on the Soundway Records release.

Alagi carries a softer electro-blues-rock feel while Tomora could quite fit in a club setting; its trills of strings loop alongside a rolling beat, layered with an assorted percussion.

Premiered by Phonica and reaching the number three slot on The Vinyl Factory‘s Top 50 Albums of 2016, he’s only just played his debut show in November of this year. As Kiera concludes its life on the stage, making way for a brand new project, we talk to Susso about cultural sensitivity, the stories behind some of the album’s finest tracks, and the next release under the guise Minyanta.

\\ What was the story behind your trip to Gambia?

I went to The Gambia to learn about its culture and music which I found inspiring—not to make an album. I was learning Mandinka balafon—a 21 keyed Wooden xylophone—and got in contact with the amazing person and balafon master Yusupha Suso in Dakar, Senegal. I was taken down to Gambia by Yusupha and welcomed into this griot family.

I found an electric bass and started playing with the family band called the Wuli Band at weddings and naming ceremonies. Yusupha and Ansumana Susoyounger brother of Yusupha—and myself tried to write some stuff together as a band but we didn’t really have decent recording facilities to do so. I toured around Gambia with Yusupha, visiting various members of his griot family who encouraged me to record performances; for this I got full consent, paid individual performance fees and regularly sent money back to the Yusupha who distributed this money amongst family.

“a lot of thinking and struggling has gone on since the album came out”

Once back in UK, I started mixing and experimenting by adding my own contribution to these recordings, whilst being very weary of respecting the core tune. Anyway, more detail can be found about this on the record where I’ve documented all people and places and shown my gratitude.  

\\ Many of the tracks on ‘Keira’ are distinctive from one another; talk us through your thought processes with a few of them?

Each track is developed in a different way really. Bani for example was a track I really enjoyed playing on the balafon, and I asked Yusupha’s aunty Jabou Kuyateh of Foday Kunda Village to perform it for me. So I when I decided to experiment with making the album I wanted to be empathetic to the sound world that was already there rather than impose really digital, clean production on to them. But with some of the tunes like Mamadou and Son Kunda, I’ve enjoyed just trying to portray the atmosphere I experienced.  

\\ Your role as an interpreter, middleman and promoter naturally carries a lot of responsibility; Was this something you were very conscious of during the production process?

Well, first of all, one of my reasons for making this album was as a reaction to a lot of African influenced electronic music coming out of the UK and Europe that is very non-discript and feature a seemingly random ‘African Chant’ from… well, who knows where. Not that Kiera stands up as a piece of ethnomusicology however; I don’t want it to be perceived as this. I see it as a respectful interpretation.

There are artistic choices I made with reasons and meaning then that now, in hindsight, I would not have done; I think when a white boy from South Wales tries to do something like this there will be some, no matter how respectful the level of understanding of culture can never be absolute. I want to pay a homage to friends and musicians, and of course a place and music that made me feel so welcome.

Also it’s not the case that these musician’s music wouldn’t have been heard. Yusupha and Ansumana and currently travelling quite frequently to Europe; playing and doing workshops. And when I have certain things in place to get these two incredible musicians to the UK for a run of gigs with the right visas to the UK, a new audience will hear their music.

\\ What are the stories behind some of the recordings?

Bani is a traditional tune from the Manding repertoire, and this traditional grounding is at the heart of most of the tunes. However tunes such as Ansumana—based on Kurunti Kelefa—and Alagi—an original composition of Alagi Kuyateh—are used a bit more abstractly, not using the traditional structures but still giving a very honest homage to the tune I feel. This is why I chose to entitle them after the performer. It reminds me of them, and I wanted to inflect the personality and friendship I experienced onto that. With others such as Son Kunda and Foday Kunda—two villages in the Upper River Region—I wanted to reference more of a community of geographical placement.

\\ Soundway Records have a great number of releases from around the world; how have you found it working with them?

Soundway have been amazing. They’re so supportive and I reckon them winning Label of the Year at the Worldwide Awards was well just. I’ve been buying Soundway’s records for years now and when I was making the album I had a vague dream that they would be interested for sure. But it wasn’t until I did a session playing double bass on FlamingodsMajesty album, that Kamaal listened to the project and introduced me to label founder Miles. For this, I am truly grateful.

\\ Have you got any upcoming releases or new material on the way?

I’m working on a second album for this project at the moment. I’m trying to raise awareness of Kiera to help generate the musician’s fees for it. It’s brought up a lot of feelings about my place in the project. The new album will be working with the band, and will be under the name Minyanta which means place or area; something referencing the thoughts I’ve had about my own identity. This will give the band in the UK more creative freedom to create honestly within our own identities; a lot of thinking and struggling has gone on since the album came out. Now it’s the time to make music.

Susso’s final show is at Rich Mix, London on 24 November.

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