Bona Fide Brilliance - The Superstar Bassist Talks To Mike Flynn
Richard Bona is a confident young man. An easy-going native Cameroonian who's lived in Paris, and now New York, Richard is one of the hottest bass players on the planet right now playing with everyone from Harry Belafonte to the late Tito Puente, to Pat Metheny - but this isn't why he's so self assured. No, his confidence is practically without ego, it's more borne of the almost feted, pre-destined path he's followed since childhood, Mike Flynn went to investigate further. Visting London for another week's residency, this time at Pizza Express (it was Ronnie Scott's last year), Bona's been thrilling crowds with his spellbinding blend of Afro-jazz-world music.
Fuelled primarily by his searching, sensitive bass playing, he also sings and plays guitar with the deftness of musical veteran twice his age. His innate musicality sees him leap-frog from five-string fretted bass laying down a soft Latin pulse, to some pounding Jaco Pastorius-inspired lines on his fretless. His version of 'Liberty City' brings Pastorius's music to life in an unnervingly emotional way, did Jaco sound this good? However, Bona's agenda is bigger and wider than becoming another Jaco clone, or another bass hero with more technique than musicality - this man has learnt the hard way. As a youth, his only collateral was a driving passion to learn music, with money and instruments both in short supply. His passion and resourcefulness saw him hanging around the local bicycle shop grabbing spare brake cables to make his own strings for his equally home-made guitar, but this was merely a test of his commitment to music, one that's since paid off tenfold. Sitting in the dimly lit basement of Pizza Express we chat about the turning points of his life. Bona speaks with a soft Parisian lilt, sitting the loose-shouldered slouch of a man in his element, his eyes a bright and passionate accompaniment to his continually gesturing hands. He picks up on how his early experiences were more a blessing in disguise. "Yeah, but if I was growing up here it would be the same, because when it's a passion for you find a way to do it! I just used to look at someone playing the guitar 'cos I didn't have any guitar, and because he couldn't give me his guitar - so I had to remember the chord by seeing him playing. And maybe I see a guitar maybe three or four months later, but I have to remember all the things this guy did on the guitar. It's like I have a great uncle who went blind, who's a blind man now today, he told me, 'you guys you can see, but you can't use your ears, man!' He said 'when I lost my eyes, oh man, my ears became my eyes!' Unbelievable! He developed a sense of touch, smell, taste, which we don't use. And the same thing happened to me because I didn't have any instruments. I had my first bass, my own guitar, when I was 17 years old! I mean my own guitar, because otherwise every time I used to be myself or playing on someone else's instrument."
Bona's reputation and veracious musical achievements soon created a buzz about him back home, which afforded him a dream opportunity. A local club owner was looking to start promoting jazz in Cameroon, which in Bona's own words; "I was like, this guy is crazy", but this offer was serious, and the club owner also introduced Richard to jazz by loaning him 400 LPs. The first one he happened to place on the turntable was to be another moment of destiny: it was Jaco Pastorius's eponymous debut. "I picked one album out of 400 albums, and I took 'Portrait Of Tracy' and I listened to the bass and went WOW! And I was a guitar player at that time, and then I went from guitar to bass. Straightaway. When you love something, especially something about music, because music is so magical, it doesn't matter how hard is the line, or whatever, if you love it you play it. Just because you want to hear yourself playing it you play the song, and then nothing is hard anymore." His seemingly effortless musicianship and sunny stage presence are natural traits developed over years of playing live, but his records are determinably not showcases for his outstanding bass playing - a solo bass CD is not on the cards. "I don't visualise my work just as a bass player, I see my work as music. I played guitar before even playing bass, I used play a lot of guitar and a lot of percussion. So that's the direction that I want to take, I want to keep that up and if I have a good occasion to put a bass album out I will do it, but it's not my priority. People can see me play on the stage. I get bored when I hear bass, only bass, I can't listen to a whole album just listening to just bass. I love changes you know, I love colours and I see music as colours. That's how I write my songs and for years I was so focused on the bass I forgot completely that I was a singer too. Because I grew up singing every night making people dance every night, and I forgot. So I wanted to go back using the experience I have playing bass and mix it together with my background and put something together with that. I love danger in music - I love to go in a place where I'm not familiar with, I'm familiar with the bass - I can play the bass anytime! You know in the morning - in my bed - so I love to experience some other stuff."
Jaco Pastorius may have reshaped the way the bass functions in music, taking it into the realms of the solo flights of the tenor saxophone. But it was his partnership with jazz keyboard genius Joe Zawinul that became one of jazz's most talked about pairings of the '70s - their nightly sparring on stage nothing short of jaw dropping. So when Richard got a call from this jazz-fusion legend it was just another extraordinary, ordinary day in his career, one that almost floored him. Residing in Paris at the time, Bona was obviously overjoyed at the prospect of working with his idol. He picks up the story. "Oh, it was great! Zawinul was one of my heroes! He is still. I met him in Paris, and the first time he called me on the phone I thought it was a friend making a joke! Because I have this friend of mine, Paco Sery, a drummer, and we went to New York and we did his demo, and I was playing on his demo tape. And then he went New York and Joe listened to the demo and asked him 'who is the bass player playing on the record?' and he gave him [Paco] my phone number. And then Joe called one day, he was in New York, telling me 'I'm coming to Paris, I would love you to come and have a jam with us, with the syndicate'. So he'd called me and I thought it was a friend so I was like 'who's doing this bullshit?' and I hang up because I was out of my head, 'yeah right you're serious? I'm walking!' He was like, 'I am Joe Zawinul!' [Laughs] So he called back, and actually I listened to the accent and I'm like, this is not a French accent! And I don't have a friend who'd call back if I'd hung up, so he has my phone number. 'Paco Sere came to New York, he's playing with me and I'm coming to Paris at the Passage Du Nord Ouest', and I knew he was coming, so I was like 'OK'. He said 'I would love you to come and play with us' and I said 'yes I would love to man!' And I had a concert that night and I had to cancel it, my own gig with my own band. So I went there and nobody was there on time for the soundcheck. The guy that fixes the plug gave me just a direct box, I was like hey, I'll do a gig! So I went on stage playing with them, and I still have the tape, I still have the tape." On the question of Zawinul enlightening him further on Weather Report's music, Bona proved to be more of an expert than his mentor, "I certainly know that music better than he does! 'Cos I listened to that music so much, and Joe doesn't listen to his music! [Laughs] I know all the songs from the top, to all the solos and he doesn't know it all. So sometimes when we're on stage, I did a tour of duets with him this summer, a short tour just for two weeks, and it's great playing with him, seriously. He's one of my favourites and a hero forever. I learned so much, and I'm still learning from him. The tour of duets I did I came back with so much to do, I mean so much! Not in terms of technique, just in terms of music, and that's the hard part. Suddenly you get to the level where it's not technique anymore, because I can basically play any phrase I hear [sings phrase playing invisible bass], any phrase you can hear you can play, but there's something else, it's up there, and that guy has it! I feel really great for playing with this guy."
It's hard to convey just how emphatic Bona's live performance is - especially as in comparison to his album, the live act is much more multi-faceted - the crowd responding with unreserved warmth. Trying to pigeonhole Bona though is a pointless exercise, as his curiosity to explore every aspect of his potential will most likely see him work in as many musical spheres as possible. He elaborates, "I listen to every kind of music. That's what opens you and gives that ability to play other different styles of music, because of listening. I turned a certain point where technically it's not technique anymore, because it's how you feel, how you learn, 'oh I'm gonna learn some Latin music' [hums Latin bass line], that's how you find music. You see the technique a classical musician has, this is one of the most difficult to accomplish. In classical music the technique is amazing but the fact that they don't listen to jazz, they've never been interested in jazz, and they can't even improvise! It's not because technically they can't, it's just because they never hear, never get familiar with that kind of music or listen to that music, and I listen to all kinds of music. I enjoy listening to all kinds of music, hip hop, everything, you know, jazz to African music, Middle Eastern. What means jazz man? Jazz is a free thing! Jazz is a celebration of life! A celebration of life means music! There are no barriers, just music. As soon as people start putting up barriers for me, it's not music."