Richard Bona has been recognized as one of the planet’s five revelations of the past decade. A complete artist, an absolute master of his art, and a melodist of rare elegance and sensuality, he’s also a poignant singer, and a member of that exclusive club, "the world’s best bassists.”
For the past fifteen years, Richard Bona, dubbed “The African Sting,” has been displaying his smile, humour, serenity and grace wherever he’s travelled. His first two albums revealed a wonderful storyteller, a surprising musician, and a spellbinding vocalist. His unique style is situated at the crossroads of a horde of influences - jazz, bossa nova, pop music, afro-beat, traditional song, and funk.
Munia, the title of his third CD, actually means “tale” in the Douala language (part of the Bantu group, one of the 220 dialects spoken in the Cameroon.) There’s a contained emotion, unsettling charm, soft magic, and keen, blinding flashes to be found on the program of this elegant, “crossbreed” record whose release, due on September 30th, will be followed by a European tour that includes a concert on November 5th at La Cigale in Paris.
The grandson of a famous percussionist and singer, Richard Bona was born in 1967 in Minta, a village in the center of Cameroon perched on the plateau of Adamaoua, between the small shrubs of the savannah and the virgin forest. His music, too, can be compared with the colors, twittering and profusion of the thousands of species of birds that live there. Music was his environment from the day he uttered his first cry. His mother and four sisters sang in the local church every Sunday, and the little boy joined them on the rostrum when he was five. Sounds, harmony and song were a genuine passion for Richard. The boy was remarkably ingenious, and not only made reed flutes for himself, but also a large balafon, wooden percussion instruments, and his own 12-string guitar. He did so with whatever he could find, like any other kid in a poor country: Bona laughs, “I hung around the workshops where they repaired bicycles, and as soon as the guys turned their backs I’d put brake-cables in my pocket for my prototype.” He rehearsed for eight to twelve hours a day, and also spent part of his time appearing as a singer and multi-instrumentalist in a whole range of religious ceremonies, from weddings and christenings to private and public celebrations. One important detail: Richard had a highly unusual gift - he only has to look intently at someone playing, and he can learn the instrument.
He was eleven when he went to Douala with his father; the sprawling, sea-port city was the second largest in the country, with almost two million inhabitants. He was quick to find his first job: as a guitarist with a dance-group. Bona recalls, “At the time, in West Africa, the guitar was the instrument in fashion; there was no salvation without it.” In 1980 the French owner of a local club gave him the task of setting up a little, jazz-inspired group (with soul-jazz and jazz-rock leanings), and he was entrusted with a collection of some five hundred vinyl albums so that he could “soak in it to the maximum.” So Richard discovered jazz, the freedom, complexity and virtuosity of the music invented by the American descendants of his forebears. “That’s how I came across the Jaco Pastorius album, the first one, the one with his name on it, [Jaco Pastorius, Columbia, 1976] and I never looked back. When I started listening to it I wondered for a moment if I’d got the speed wrong, I thought I was playing it at 45 rpm instead, and I even took a look. Before Jaco, I’d never thought of playing bass.”
In 1989, when he was 22, the young man left Africa for Paris, where he quickly built a solid reputation playing with Didier Lockwood, Marc Fosset and André Ceccarelli, and taking part in studio sessions with musicians of the stature of Manu Dibango, Salif Keita and Joe Zawinul (My People, 1992.)
Like singer Angélique Kidjo (whom he also accompanied), who’d gone to New York to live with her family, Richard crossed the ocean in 1995 and settled in Manhattan. He quickly hooked up with Joe Zawinul again, and was invited to accompany him on a world tour.
His name began to circulate among the “pros”. Bona reflects on life in New York: “New York is a 120% jazz city. As soon as a door opens, you have to jump through.” Noticed in a midtown club by lyricist Jake Holmes (one of Harry Belafonte’s old associates), a few weeks later Richard was named Belafonte’s musical director, bassist and arranger. A “fabulous” eighteen-month adventure ensued for Bona alongside this particularly endearing character who’d been a great friend of the late Martin Luther King, Jr.; a notable, sincere combatant in the Black struggle for Civil Rights; and a major figure in “crossbred” music before his time (he’d already been mixing soul and calypso, folk and Creole song, jazz and rhumba in the Sixties…).
Soon thereafter, Bona became one of the most in-demand collaborators in music, working with a remarkable array of artists, such as Michael Brecker, Paul Simon, Chaka Khan, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chucho Valdès, Mike Stern, Larry Coryell, Steve Gadd, Joni Mitchell, Harry Connick Jr., Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Queen Latifah, Jacky Terrasson, Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea, Zawinul (again, when Bona sang and played bass and percussion on his World Tour 98 and the CD Faces & Places), Pat Metheny and George Benson .
On the advice of Branford Marsalis, Richard was chosen to play on the first compact disc by Frank McComb, the singer from Buckshot Le Fonque (the funky side of the elder of the Marsalis Brothers). The album was released by Columbia and a few months later, still under Branford’s patronage, the label gave Richard the chance to add his first album as leader to his discography.
Scenes From My Life was released in 1998, and included such luminaries as Michael Brecker, Omar Hakim and Jean-Michel Pilc (among others). One might mention some of the comments greeting this record at the time: “We don’t like showing we’re impressed by the last kid to be discovered in New York. But even the most recalcitrant change their minds when the kid’s Richard Bona.” (Newsweek). “An unexpected masterpiece, the birth certificate of an artist who prefers to sing rather than knit the ready-to-wear suits of the most gifted bassist of his generation.” (Gérald Arnaud in Jazzman). “Richard Bona is a great singer, not a great bassist who sings. A singer and a composer. Richard Bona has just made a great record. A record of great diversity.” (Jackie Berroyer in Vibrations).
Bona reflects: “Music doesn’t stop at a bass solo,” he says, “demonstrations aren’t in my temperament. In France people have heard of me essentially as an accompanist. Who’d have let me sing? Fact is, I’ve been a singer since I was a child, and here I was given that chance.” Wrapped in pared-down arrangements, and stealthily carried by his striking voice, these twelve songs are simple and subtle reflections of Richard himself.
Reverence (Autumn 2001), his second Columbia outing, was more intimate, and confirmed the hopes placed in Scenes From My Life. It was a gracious salute addressed to the world, and dealt with problems and personal good fortunes as universal subjects: faith, communication between human beings… Better than that, the young man threw out a real call for people to live life more slowly, and so take fuller advantage of life.
Munia, Bona’s third album and his debut recording for Verve, is a multi-faceted, dancing work of absolute freshness, and perhaps his most eclectic, thrilling album to date. Munia showcases Bona’s singing, composing and arranging, in addition to his work on bass and piccolo bass, acoustic and electric guitars, synthesizers, vocoder, keyboards and percussion. “In New York, where I live with my son Leo, I feed on any number of things outside my own culture.”
Munia, and its eleven titles in collaboration with drummer Nathaniel Townsley, keyboardist George Whitty, pianist George Colligan and saxophonist Aaron Heick, is the best translation of this frame of mind, undulating from one genre to another, yet it never interrupts one’s listening. Munia also boasts appearances by several notable guests: Salif Keita (vocals), Djely Moussa Conde (kora) and Bailo Ba (traditional flutes) on the brisk “Kalabancoro,”; Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums (the very jazzy “Painting A Wish”); or the virtuoso acoustic guitar of Romero Lubambo on the lively, cheerful bossa nova “Bona Petit” (one of the rare pieces on which Bona sings in French). There’s also tropical rock (“Balemba na Bwemba”), two extraordinary ballads (“Dina Lam” and “Muto Bye Bye”), a brilliant rhumba (“Couscous”), and an exhilarating fusion piece (“Engingilaye”). Taken together, with Richard Bona, we once again have a recording that’s a pure marvel. There’s really nothing more to add.