Richard Bona: Scenes from My Life
by George Graham
(Columbia 69768 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/3/99)
Ever since Paul Simon's Graceland album back in 1986 helped to open a lot of American ears to the joys of music from Africa and elsewhere, there has been a steady stream of worthwhile American releases from artists hailing from places other than North America or Western Europe. The popularity of World Music has also spawned a lot of cultural cross-pollenization with, for example blends of African and Celtic music, Eastern European and techno and so on.
This week we have an another interesting cross-cultural blend. It's the impressive debut album by Richard Bona, a 31-year-old Cameroon native, living in New York that brings together his native West African influences with jazz and fusion. His CD is called Scenes from My Life.
Combining jazz and African influences has actually been done for decades, with jazz musicians going back to Duke Ellington seeking to incorporate African traditions into jazz. But Bona, as a native African, works the other way around, starting with an African perspective, drawing on current-day African pop, and mixing in contemporary jazz and fusion elements, including some Latin jazz influence. The result is a very appealing sound with the distinctive West African vocal style, sung mostly in the Douala language, along with African polyrhythms and percussion, in the context of compositions that are quite Western melodically and show a fair amount of jazz influence.
Richard Bona has a fascinating background. Born in a small village in the eastern part of Cameroon, he was surrounded by music in his family. His grandfather was a noted percussionist and vocalist, and his mother was also a singer. Young Richard was apparently a cranky child, and one day his crying was calmed when someone brought in a balafon, an marimba-like instrument, and began playing it. Richard was immediately taken by the sound of the instrument, and while still a child, he decided he would make his own balafon. He was performing in public by age five, singing in church with his family. He began creating more of his own instruments, such as percussion, and also built himself a 12-string guitar using bicycle brake cables as strings, since there was no music store in his village where he could buy proper strings.
By age 11, he wanted to expand his horizons and moved to the larger city of Douala and lived there with his father. He was soon playing professionally and attracting attention, including that of a Frenchman who came to town and wanted to establish a jazz club in a local hotel. The club owner asked Bona to learn lots of jazz standards and gave him access to his large record collection, where he was deeply impressed by the first LP he heard, the debut album by the late electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, leading Bona to take up the bass, which has become his main instrument. Bona moved to Paris at age 22, attracted to the active African-expatriate scene there. He enrolled in music school and studied jazz. After being invited by one of his bandmates to come along to play at a jazz festival in New York , Bona found the scene there to his liking, and eventually moved to New York in 1995.
Since then, he has worked in various musical capacities, including with Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul, appearing on the latter's album My People, and becoming the musical director for Harry Belafonte for about a year and a half.
For his new album, Bona enlisted some of the people with whom he has worked, including pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, plus notable guests including drummer Omar Hakim and saxophonist Michael Brecker. The CD's title Songs from My Life is apt, since lyrically, the compositions are a series of remembrances of West Africa and his family, but stylistically, the album is very diverse, ranging from African folk to slick, funky fusion to salsa to a piece accompanied by a classical string quintet. The overall sound is distinctly more Western than many albums by African performers. But with lyrics in Bona's native tongue, Douala, most Western listeners will likely approach this in the same way as an instrumental album, and indeed Bona's vocals often take on the qualities of an instrument. But for those with an interest in the lyrical content, Bona provides explanations of what each song is about. Interestingly, the upbeat and appealing musical settings can conceal words that are often sad.
Though electric bass is his main instrument, Bona is a versatile multi-instrumentist, playing guitars, keyboards and percussion, in addition to doing all the many vocals on this record. As a composer, he is also quite skilled at coming up with pleasing melodic lines and interesting Western-style compositional elements while still maintaining a kind of African ambience.
The album opens with a piece called Dipita, which translates as "hope." Bona writes that the song is about faith and the religious persecution that many people have suffered. The piece is an interesting mixture of jazzy pop, Brazilian influence and an African vocal quality. Jean Michel Pilc provides the jazzy-sounding piano while Omar Hakim is the drummer. Bona plays everything else. <<>>
New Bell is a good example of the contrast between the lyrical subject and the mood of the music. "New Bell" is the name of a prison, and the words are about a man who was falsely imprisoned there for 15 years, and finally released when the actual perpetrator was found. The man was never the same afterward. Musically, the piece alternates between African polyrhythms and bits of jazzy swing. <<>>
On the other hand, sounding very much like a Western pop song is Souwedi Na Wengue, whose lyrics are about the spreading of rumors. <<>>
There is one track with lyrics mostly in English, One Minute which is about the anticipating the birth of a child. The piece also has hints of a bossa nova beat. <<>>
Pianist Pilc is featured prominently on Eyala, whose lyrics are a plea for communication to avoid conflict and war. The piece is performed as a jazzy ballad, with Bona featured on bass and Ari Hoenig playing drums. <<>>
Yet another perhaps unexpected stylistic facet is presented on a track called Te Dikalo which is done as a very appealing salsa. The title is a term for a bell used by old fashioned town criers who still announced the news to small villages in Cameroon when Bona was growing up, with radio and television still being rare. <<>>
The most musically suprising track is Muna Nyuwe, which was inspired by a homeless orphan boy Bona encountered on the streets on a freezing day in Romania. The sad story is accompanied by a classical style chamber group, a string quintet comprised of members of the New York City Symphony. <<>>
The album ends with a remarkable performance by Bona on various percussion and overdubbed vocals. It's called Messanga, named after his grandfather, who loved to tell the story of fisherman who caught a mermaid. It's a wonderful showpiece for Bona's African influence. <<>>
Scenes from My Life, the new debut album by Cameroonian-born composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Richard Bona is a very appealing recording that combines African influence with sophisticated Western jazz and pop. Despite the Douala-language lyrics, the balance is clearly toward the Western pop side. Sometimes, the album seems headed toward being too sweet, but it never crosses the line. The CD is one that, among those by African performers, is most likely to appeal to open-minded music fans who may not be into World Music, even those by more popular African performers. Bona's range of influences on this CD is also quite impressive, and the musicianship by all is first-rate.
For production and sound, we'll give this CD an unqualified grade "A." Bona produced the album himself, and his arrangements are imaginative, and full of subtle instrumental and sonic touches that reveal themselves and reward repeated, careful listening. The recording engineer, on this New York-made album is Roy Clark, and he did an excellent job keeping a clean, pleasing sound, and also skilfully mixing those little extra instrumental touches that add a lot. The CD also has an admirable dynamic range, with a refreshing restraint in using audio compression.
With the proliferation of World Music albums these days, Richard Bona's new release Songs from My Life stands out for the quality of material and musicianship, eclecticism and yet potential wide appeal even to those who think they might not like World Music.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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