A Conversation with Richard Bona, NYU Steinhardt Jazz Interview Series Hosted by Dr. David Schroeder
Richard Bona comes from a tiny village in Cameroon, and now makes his home in the great cities and concert halls of the world. It wasn’t good luck that opened all these doors. At every turn, it was Bona’s outsized talent, intense concentration, and fierce determination that propelled him into an ever-expanding universe, beyond the confines of musical or cultural boundaries.
Today, Bona is a singer/songwriter, bass player, composer, bandleader, and digital and analog engineer/producer with a singular artistic vision. Behind these achievements lies a storybook life. Born in the village of Minta in 1967, Bona was a baby who cried all the time, and the family soon discovered that the one thing that calmed him was music. By the age of five he was playing the balafon (a wooden-slatted melodic percussion instrument) in his grandfather’s traditional music band. At eleven, his family moved to the capital city, Douala, where he became an in-demand dance band guitarist before discovering and quickly mastering the language of jazz—at just fourteen. Bona moved to Paris in 1989 and New York in 1995, establishing in these two cities a reputation as one of the most exciting jazz bass players on the planet. And all this before he began his solo recording career with Scenes from My Life in 1999. Now Bona’s seventh solo album, Bonafied, an intimate, mostly acoustic, multi-genre set of songs, offers personal stories, tributes, philosophy based in lifelong love of nature, and a spirit of musical adventurism that just won’t quit.
Bona’s idiosyncratic art remains a puzzlement to critics hung up on genre. “Any bass player who sees me play knows I play something else. The technique I use, it’s everything combined, balafon, guitar, a vocal approach. It looks almost awkward. The way I move, it’s not a bass-playing move. Is it wrong? I don’t know.”
Nor does he worry. The songs on Bonafied brazenly reference Latin jazz (“Mute Esukudu”), tango (“An Uprising of Kindness”), African pop (“Diba la Bobe”), and even Parisian cabaret ambiance (“Janjo la Maya”). There’s a cool jazz instrumental cover of James Taylor’s “On the Fourth of July” with Bona’s bass singing in the voice of his first inspiration in jazz: Jaco Pastorius. On “Tumba la Nyama,” Bona evokes Cameroonian pop music, rendering the lyrical melodies of makossa and the spitfire 12/8 rhythm of guitar-driven bikutsi—the style he played as a boy in Douala—all using just his own voice.
“People play music the way they speak,” says Bona. “The music comes from the language.” Bona speaks four of Cameroon’s 24 major languages (Douala, Banwele, Pongo, and Ewondo), in addition to French, English and bits of Spanish, Japanese, and other tongues. No surprise that his own musical vocabulary is so dazzlingly expansive.
The emotional centerpiece of Bonafied is a lyrical ballad called “Mulema,” the first song Bona wrote on guitar. “Mulema” defines this album’s spare sound scape with its simple acoustic guitar, light percussion, and a hint of—yes—balafon, all backing Bona’s satin-smooth, call-and-response vocal lines. “Mulema” tells the story of a man risking an ocean voyage in vain pursuit of his true love. French singer/actress Camille contributes her own version of the song, “La Fille D’a Cote,” equally elegant, but with a story all her own, from a woman’s perspective.
“I come from a different place, a place where music has to be describing a story,” says Bona. “When I was a kid, music was not music to us unless there was a beautiful story behind it. That’s my background. That’s still where I live. Even when people don’t understand the language, they can feel what’s happening. The sounds of the words and the music tell the story. And the stories of people’s lives are the same, work and love and struggle and happiness, all over the world.”