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Q&A: Richard Bona

Bassist Richard Bona speaks about Miles, blues and all that jazz

Rolling Stone IN Dec 10, 2008

Hashim Badani

Richard Bona performed at two concerts in Mumbai on October 8 and 9 as part of his whirlwind international tour. His band had just flown in from New York for just two nights in Mumbai with Japan as their next destination. The first thing that amazed us about Bona was his stamina level; after all playing about 140 concerts a year all over the world with no concern for little matters like rest and jet lag must take a lot of doing. After hearing his live performances, we were even more amazed. Richard Bona is very lively throughout the concert during which he does not even take a break!

He was born and brought up in Cameroon in West Africa and now lives in New York, plays the bass and sings. We met him at the Blue Frog in Mumbai where he performed his first concert. Excerpts from the interview:

Welcome to Mumbai, Richard. Is this your first visit to our city?

Yes. This is my first trip to India.

First impressions?

Oh! First thing I noticed was how beautifully the women are dressed here! The other is how much your drivers honk their horns. It feels nice to be here.

With so many concerts and constant travel, how do you cope with fatigue?

The trick is to not stop. Anyway we really enjoy the music so don’t feel so tired.

You were born in Cameroon. When did you start playing music?

I’ve been playing ever since I can remember. My mother always sang in the local church in our little village. She still does! Her father was a professional musician and in any case everyone around seemed to some sort of musician.

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What instrument did you start with?

Various percussion instruments to start with and then [I] settled on the guitar. By age eleven I was taken from our village to the city where I played in a bar.

How did you move on to jazz?

A Frenchman walked into the bar one evening, liked my playing and asked, ”˜How would you like to play jazz and earn 20 times the money?’ I said I don’t know what jazz is but for that money I’ll even play for a marching band! So he took me to his studio and asked me to pick out one record album from his huge collection of LPs. I happened to pick out one by Jaco Pastorius. He played it for me and I said to myself that I wanted to play the bass just like Jaco. Later I got to Germany and ultimately to New York. I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to play with most of the people I had only heard on records.

Jazz is different from music in Africa. Jazz has emerged from the pain of slavery in America where African music sounds more like it is a celebration.

You got the right word there. Celebration! My grandfather always said that life is to be celebrated through music.

So the blues are the main difference?

Absolutely! The blues are such an important of jazz. You hear Miles [Davis]. He is always so close to the blues.

An example”¦

In ”˜Kind Of Blue,’ where he plays”¦ [at this point Bona proceeds to verbally imitate Miles’ solo. He has such a tremendous voice, it sounds like a trumpet here.] So simple and beautiful.

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Your voice”¦there you were singing in the upper register.

Yes, singing has always been my strength.

With so much travelling, how do you rehearse?

My band has been together for five years and we have many many songs in our repertoire.

How do you decide what to play?

[Smiles] Depends on audience response. For example in Japan we play a lot of jazz standards. The Japanese love traditional jazz. Of course we do these standards in our own style.

Who are your idols?

I worship Jaco Pastorius. He played the bass different from anyone else and I try and play in his style.

What about other instruments? How do you compare today’s musicians with, say the greats from the past such as, say, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane or Ben Webster?

I liked Ben Webster’s style. But coming to your question, today’s musicians are technically so much superior to the older guys.

Well, the instruments today are technologically much superior. For example you play the electric bass where people like Ray Brown or Scott LeFaro played the upright, acoustic bass. Even today you have Ron Carter and Christian McBride playing this instrument.

Yeah! The electric bass is completely different. It is played as a lead instrument.

True. Do you ever get back to Cameroon?

I’m going in December. My mother is doing a church concert and retiring. I’ll attend that.

Will you play there?

No. My mother thinks that places where people smoke and drink don’t deserve music. I differ! I don’t think God hates smokers and drinkers. They too are loved by Him.

I’ll drink to that”¦..

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