Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section(last revision 02/11/99)
TITLE: WITCH DOCTOR ARTIST: SURU FORMAT: CD COMPANY: GLOBAL PACIFIC RECORDS/ ECO ART MUSIC; 226 CENTER STREET, SAN RAFAEL, CA 94901 NUMBER: GPD 355
Upon your request I have tried to write a detailed, intelligent review of Suru Ekeh's "Witch Doctor." I can not do it. Too much emotion clouds my brain functions. So passion will have to speak where the intellect can not.
"Witch Doctor" was the one recording made by the late, great Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Suru Ekeh. Fans of Baba Olatunji's "Drums of Passion: The Beat" will be surprised to learn that many of the sweet guitar licks that they have always attributed to Carlos Santana are actually being played by Suru (on that album and the companion Invocation, he is listed as "Frank Ekeh"). Suru played a mean bass guitar and was absolutely the most incredible shekere and bell player that I have ever met. He played talking drum, ashiko, congas, djembe, you name it.
But Suru's main instrument was the djun-djun. He played a barrel-shaped stave drum with elk skin that he always said he got from Arthur Hull (though he would add with a twinkle in his eye that he had done "some work" on it himself). Suru could make that drum sing like no one's business. He played Nigerian-style with a heavy, bent stick (like a talking drum stick but much thicker) on one head and with his hand on the other head (both muffling the notes from the other side and playing additional notes). I once asked him where he learned how to play like that and he said that when he was growing up in Nigeria there were large orchestras of just djun-djuns and that's how they played. Wow!
Suru was my first djun-djun teacher. I learned a lot from him but much of what he had to teach me was simply above where I was at. As we drifted more into concentrating on playing traditional Mandingue rhythms, I saw him less often, but I knew that I had more to learn from Suru Ekeh, and he did, too. Sometimes he would kid me when I ran into him at Baba's concerts and workshops.
Suru recorded Witch Doctor in 1992. The album consists of him and his friend Kandido Obajimi, another great Nigerian percussionist. They each play an assortment of percussion instruments and sing, weaving a mesmerizing web of beauty and mystery.
Some time after the album was released, we got a call from Suru asking us to meet him at the Fillmore in San Francisco where he was opening for Ali Farka Toure. We agreed. He had a bunch of djembe shells that he had carved and we had talked about a partnership where we would head the drums and sell them, so we figured he wanted to talk about that.
Suru performed well and was well received by the crowd. It was nice to see that this incredibly gifted young man was beginning to receive the acclaim that was his due.
But we also noticed a little intangible something, as if Suru didn't have quite the energy that we usually saw in him. Backstage, this feeling increased. Suru always carried himself with an astonishing degree of strength, health, and dignity. He was a vegetarian and an athlete who coached youth soccer in Marin County. But backstage at the Fillmore he seemed thin and tired.
Even more surprising, he told us he just wanted us to take the shells, he didn't care if he didn't get more than $5 a piece for them, he just wanted to get them out into the community. We explained that we had to go back to Santa Cruz that night but that we would try to get up to Marin within a few weeks to get the shells, and that we would work out some sort of fair arrangement of the money.
But before we could get up to Marin, we got a call from a mutual friend saying that Suru had passed into the ancestor realm. That pillar of strength and health, my teacher that was and was to be, had wasted away in a matter of months, just as he was beginning to taste success. Nobody seems to know why. Doctor's tests were all negative. Whatever, the fact was that he was gone. And, since he had no heirs in this country and no will, the county confiscated all his possessions, including the djembe shells.
Sometimes I think about Suru joking about when I was going to come back and study with him, and I put on "Witch Doctor". I hear different things every time. "Witch Doctor" is a musical journey into the mysteries of Africa. This beautiful man, taken so suddenly and inexplicably out of the physical realm, still has much to teach and so I am glad his spirit lives on.