Richard Bona
1967
Cameroon, United States
Solo Artist
Since arriving in New York in 1995, bassist-vocalist-composer Richard Bona has been one of the most sought-after talents on the scene. To date, guitarists Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and Pat Metheny, keyboardists Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Jacky Terrasson and Bob James, saxophonists Sadao Watanabe, Branford Marsalis and David Sanborn, violinist Regina Carter, vocalist Bobby McFerrin and trumpeter Randy Brecker have enlisted his services as a sideman. But it is in the context as a leader in his own right that the gifted Cameroonian has revealed the full scope of his artistry.

On Reverence, his follow-up to 1999's acclaimed debut Scenes from My Life, Bona renders rich tales with his striking, angelic falsetto voice, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, electric bass, flute, keyboards and percussion. The settings on this diverse project range from sparse, thoroughly engaging African troubadour offerings like the opening "Invocation," the infectious ditty "Sweet Mary" and "Laka Mba" to highly evocative orchestral numbers like the gentle ballad "Suninga" and the poignant title track (featuring special guest Pat Metheny); from a tender duet with Cuban pianist Edsel Gomez on "Esoka" to the buoyant, upbeat "Bisso Baba"; from the funky groover "Ngad'a Ndutu (Widow's Dance)" (wherein Bona mixes it up in Jacoesque fashion on electric bass alongside tenor sax star Michael Brecker and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta) to the salsafied "Ekwa Mwato" to the all-out fusion burn between Bona and Colaiuta on "Mbanga Kumba."

Says Bona, "I wanted to show that there has been some growth between the first and second recordings. I think on the first one I barely had time to put things together. We went into the studio for three days and did it quickly. But I took some more time with this one. I just wanted to write some nice melodies and to organize it a little better than the first one. And I also wanted to bring all these great musicians together. To be able to pull that off, with their busy schedules, was a real challenge."

On the lush orchestral pieces, conducted and arranged by Gil Goldstein (a protege of Gil Evans who was a key figure in Miles Davis' triumphant recreation of Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival), Bona summons up an uncanny elegance and depth of soul in his vocals that register high on the spine-tingling meter. "I make up my own melodies," says Bona. "And it's hard to say where they come from. It's hard to explain my influences over time. Basically, this record is a mix of all the things that I've been exposed to during my entire musical life -- the experiences with the Zawinul Syndicate, Harry Belafonte, Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, Michael Brecker -- along with my own roots. And it all comes from my heart. I just use what I feel inside. I'm not trying to just play what I can play on the bass or the guitar. What I do is hear a line that comes from my heart and then I transcribe it on the bass or guitar or some other instrument."

The storytelling aspect of Bona's music is another important part of Reverence. His tales of a prophet's vision of a new world without war and conflict ("Invocation"), a father's eternal love for his daughter ("Bisso Baba"), love at first sight ("Suninga"), accepting old age gracefully ("Muntula Moto") and persevering through personal mourning ("Ngad'a Ndutu") are all universal themes that can be embraced by any culture. As Richard explains, "Some of these songs come from my own background of growing up in Cameroon. But most of all it's the story of us...OUR story, you know? When I sing about wanting to protect the planet ("Te Misea"), it's my story but it's also the story of everybody."

Storytelling, he adds, comes directly from his own cultural experience. "I grew up with my grandfather, who was a singer and a musician. Sometimes when he would tell me to do something, he would tell it by singing to me. In my country we are always doing storytelling, like the griots. We tell stories with music. We never play music without a story behind it. And as far as you go on this journey, you don't ever get away from your roots. So I try to keep that element in my music when I write songs."

Born in 1967 in the village of Minta in East Cameroon, Bona grew up in a home filled with music. He began to perform in public at the age of five, singing in the village church with his mother and four sisters. His earliest instruments were wooden flutes and hand percussion. Eventually he constructed his own 12-string acoustic guitar. After moving to the bigger city of Douala, Richard began playing gigs at the age of 11 on a rented electric guitar. A major turning point in his life happened in 1980 when a Frenchman came to his town and established a jazz club in a local hotel. The club owner heard about the young local prodigy and hired him to assemble a band. "I didn't know anything about jazz," Richard says, "but the gig paid really well, so I took it." The hotel provided the instruments, so Richard would spend his entire day there, learning to play all of the instruments and teaching himself to read and write music. The club owner also offered his collection of 500 jazz LPs as a kind of reference library for Bona to start learning the repertoire. Purely by chance, the first record he pulled out of the stacks was Jaco Pastorius, the revolutionary self-titled debut album from 1976 by the bassist from Weather Report. This single album became a kind of Rosetta Stone for Bona's entry into jazz. "Before I heard Jaco I'd never even considered playing bass," he recalls. "But when I heard that music, and especially the tune 'Portrait of Tracy,' it changed my life"

In 1989, at age 22, Bona moved to Paris and soon began working with such leading French musicians as violinist Didier Lockwood and bassist Marc Ducret as well as such African stars as Manu Dibango and Salif Keita. During his seven years in Paris, Richard refined his writing skills while further immersing himself in the music of jazz greats like Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Ben Webster. After locating to New York late in 1995, he contacted former Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul, whom he had previously met and played with in Paris. Richard joined the Zawinul Syndicate, appearing on 1996's My People and following it up with a whirlwind international tour (documented on 1998's live World Tour). In 1997, Bona became the musical director for Harry Belafonte, a position he held for a year and a half. In 1998, Richard began a series of regular Tuesday night tributes to Jaco Pastorius in an intimate downtown New York club called the Izzy Bar. There he would intersperse Jaco classics like "Liberty City," "Continuum," "Opus Pocus" and "Portrait of Tracy" with his own roots-oriented African-flavored originals. He focused on the latter direction for Scenes from My Life. Now Reverence delivers on the promise of that auspicious debut.
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