Richard Bona is an absolute master, with a distinctive and unique style that has helped him earn a reputation as one of the world’s best bassists.
Born in Cameroon before moving to New York, the Grammy-winning singer, bassist, composer, arranger and producer has worked with the likes of John Legend, George Benson, Chaka Khan, Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny and Bobby McFerrin.
He has also released eight albums of his own, establishing himself as a singer-songwriter with a singular voice. His Afro-Caribbean project Toto Bona Lokua and his Afro-Cuban project Mandekan Cubano weave together disparate roots, alchemizing ancient traditions into surprising new forms.
Bona joined us to share some stories from his impressive career.
Let’s take it back to the little Cameroonian village of Minta, where you were born. Tell me about the role your grandfather played in your musical life, and how influential he was for you.
I grew up surrounded by musicians, including my grandfather and the role that he played in my entire journey into music. When he realized I was attracted to [music], he decided to build this balafon for me. I was three years old. That’s where everything started. I decided to just bang on this balafon night and day. I was a very passionate kid. From day one, I loved to play music, and that passion is still there. That love of music is still there.
I read that your first paying gig was a jazz gig in your teens. As the story goes, you didn’t know anything about jazz, but the owner of the club had a rather big jazz record collection and you spent night and day listening to it. What was in that collection that stood out the most?
What stood out from the collection was the first one that I picked. I’d never listened to jazz before — I was 14 years old. But by the time I was 14 years old, I was playing guitar as a professional musician. It was Top 40 music in Africa, you know, whatever, just to dance. This aficionado of jazz music was trying to build a club, so he got me on board to listen to jazz. He had all these LPs, and he said, “Pick one.” So I picked one, and it was Portrait of Tracy by Jaco Pastorius. I didn’t even like bass back then. I just played the first track and I was like, “Oh-oh, what’s going on here? Play me that track again.” From that day, I became a bass player.
You got the chance to play with Joe Zawinul, who worked with Jaco. What kind of insights did he give you, with respect to Jaco and the kind of bass player that he was?
My introduction to Joe was actually through Weather Report, because when I was a teenager I had decided to follow everything Jaco was doing. Moving to New York years later and getting hired by Joe Zawinul, as a kid, that brought me some beautiful memories. Joe’s still a great mentor, not just to me but to a lot of musicians of my generation. He was an amazing musician. I was in a band for about two years with him. We shared some amazing moments, and some funny moments, too. He got me into boxing. We had some really fun moments.
Tell me about the boxing.
Joe got knocked out one day. We used to go box at Chelsea Piers. You know, when you’re boxers, some days you’re the windshield and some days you’re the bug. We had some funny moments in the bars, too. It was just a beautiful camaraderie, like we say in French. He was also a great teacher — a great, great, great teacher, really. I had this jam session with Joe Zawinul in France, long ago, two years before I moved to New York. After that night, he told me, “Hey man, whenever you come to New York, man, call me, man.” I decided to move to New York, and I remember three days after my arrival in New York, I called Joe. I took 25 cents to a public phone, and I called Joe. I didn’t even say one word, and he picked up the phone and said, “Richard Bona!” I was like, this dude is watching me, man. This dude is watching me. I couldn’t believe it. When I saw him days after that, I had that question in mind. “How did you know that was me?” He was a strange guy sometimes. He goes, “Who else would call me from a payphone?”
You’ve been exploring Afro-Cuban music for quite some time, having worked with Tito Puente, Chucho Valdés and of course your own project, Mandekan Cubano. How has your collaboration with Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martinez helped that exploration?
First of all, I have to remind people that Cuban music got to us back in Africa when Fidel was doing what I call the beautiful part of the propaganda — the cultural propaganda. Man, he invaded all the African radios back then with Cuban music. I don’t know how he did that, but one thing for sure, when we were kids, we heard a lot of this music. I knew Cuban music before I knew where Cuba was. My link with Cuban music has been a long link, an old link. With this young pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, it’s been a wonderful collaboration. He’s such an excellent pianist and a great person to tour with. Pedrito’s the same. He got to New York a few years after I got there, and it’s been amazing to see him growing and developing into a wonderful artist.
This interview has been edited and condensed.