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Joe Zawinul Site - Musicians
Richard Bona

Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Richard Bona, the newest addition to the Columbia Jazz roster, has lived a life of adventure, ingenuity and accomplishment. On his debut album for Columbia, Scenes from my Life (released on August 1999), Richard has crafted his memories into a set of 12 songs, by turns ebullient and reflective. Sung in his native language of Douala, Bona's songs reflect both real incidents - a friend who spent time in prison, a war orphan found wandering the streets of Romania, the loss of his father - and more universal concerns such as having faith, a plea for communication, and a reminder to slow down and experience life more fully.

Born in 1967 in the village of Minta in East Cameroon, Richard grew up in a home filled with music. His grandfather was a noted percussionist and singer. And his mother, also a singer, noticed something interesting about her son from a very early age. "When I was about three years old I used to cry a lot for no reason," says Bona, laughing at the memory. "And then one day someone brought a balafon to my house and was playing it, and I stopped crying, and just sat and listened to it for hours." An industrious youngster, Richard soon constructed his own balafon out of wood he found around the village, and would practice his new instrument eight to twelve hours a day.

Richard began to perform in public at the age of five, singing in the village church with his mother and four sisters. Musical instruments were hard to come by in his village, so Richard often had to build his own. He crafted a variety of wooden flutes and percussion instruments, and soon he had even constructed his own 12-string guitar. The biggest problem he faced, of course, was that there was no local music shop at which he could purchase guitar strings. So Richard came up with a creative solution: "I would hang out near the bicycle repair shops," he recalls, "and when no one was looking, I would steal the bicycle brake cables to make my strings!"

Word of this prodigious young musician spread throughout the village quickly, and Richard was soon highly in demand to sing and play at baptisms, weddings and other church functions. Before long, however, Richard felt the big city calling out to him. He moved to Douala to live with his father, and began working as a musician right away. "I learned quickly that the guitar was the hip instrument that you had to play," he says. Richard soon realized that he was able to learn virtually any instrument simply by watching it being played. Renting a professional-style guitar to replace his homemade model, he began playing gigs at the age of 11.

Richard's life would change in 1980 when a Frenchman came to his town and established a jazz club in a local hotel. This 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 had his collection of 400-500 jazz LPs sent to the club, and he told Bona to start learning the music on those albums. Purely by chance, the first record Richard pulled out of the collection was the eponymously-titled album by the virtuoso of the electric bass guitar Jaco Pastorius, which included "Portrait of Tracy", a performance that would literally change Bona's life. "Before I heard Jaco," Bona says, "I'd never even considered playing bass. But when I heard that music, I had to check the turntable to make sure that the pitch was right! I thought it might have been fast!" Captivated by Jaco's sound and style, Richard immediately began to play bass and set about learning to play in that style. He explored the music of Weather Report and other jazz recordings, moving from fusion back into more traditional styles. After the loss of his father when he was 17, Richard realized the time for another move was approaching, and at the age of 22 he packed his belongings and flew to Paris.

"I arrived in Paris in the winter," he recalls. "But in Cameroon I never knew winter. So I show up in Paris and they open the plane, and I'm wearing shorts and a light shirt, and I'm freezing! There's snow everywhere, which I'd never seen before. I was terrified; I wanted to turn around and go home right away!" A kindly airplane steward gave Richard his sweater and convinced him to give the city a chance, and within two months Bona was working regularly with such leading French musicians as Didier Lockwood and Marc Ducret, as well as African stars such as Manu Dibango and Salif Keita.

During seven years in Paris, Richard enrolled in a music school to refine his writing skills, and immersed himself in the work of such artists as Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Ben Webster. On a visit to Senegal with his band Point Cardinale (featuring his current keyboardist Jean-Michel Pilc) for a performance at a jazz festival, the American flutist Colette Michaan invited Richard to come to New York for "a four day visit that ended up lasting two weeks." Bona didn't know any English, but Colette made all the necessary introductions and Bona's music did the speaking for him. The local music community was quick to embrace him, and Richard quickly realized that this was where he belonged.

Bona moved to New York in late 1995. He contacted Joe Zawinul, whom he had originally met and played with in Paris, and joined him for the recording of the album My People and a subsequent world tour. Returning to New York, Bona lived the life of the busy working musician, taking gigs at clubs all over downtown. It was at such a club that he was heard by Jake Holmes, a songwriter for Harry Belafonte. Richard subsequently became Belafonte's bandleader and musical director for a year and a half.

Richard would soon work with such illustrious musicians as Larry Coryell, Michael and Randy Brecker, and Steve Gadd. He was introduced to the Columbia Jazz department and creative consultant Branford Marsalis in 1998 when he was hired to play bass on Buckshot LeFonque vocalist Frank McComb's debut recording for the label. By the end of 1998, Columbia signed Richard and put him into the studio to record his debut album, Scenes from My Life. This multifaceted album, which includes longtime Bona keyboardist Jean-Michel Pilc as well as such guest musicians as Michael Brecker and Omar Hakim, features not only Bona's well-known instrumental prowess but also his rich and expressive singing voice and songwriting skills.

Richard Bona makes his home in Manhattan, where he lives with his six-month-old son Leo. His daughter Crystal, age 12, live in Paris with Richard's sister. Bona can regularly be heard at such downtown clubs as Izzy Bar and Zinc Bar, where the buzz has quietly been building about the extraordinary bassist with the haunting voice. The release of Scenes from My Life is certain to spread the word far and wide: Bona's blending of his own African musical roots, his jazz sensibilities and his poignant lyrical reflections on his life mark yet another broadening of the very definition of jazz.

Richard Bona Biography courtesy of EMMECI Srl



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