Richard Bona’s staggering talent on the bass guitar has seen him emerge as one of the instrument’s most identifiable players since Jaco. With equal facility on fretted and fretless instruments, Bona delivers improvised lines with astonishing speed and fluidity, while holding down percussive right-hand grooves using a muting technique he developed playing balafon as a child in Cameroon.
“As a kid I was a percussion player so I grew up surrounded by different grooves,” he told BP. “So I use muted notes a lot and I like to tap the strings with my fingers and come in and out of different tonalities. I just love grooving!”
Such vivid musicianship has been evident throughout his career, with Bona adding rhythmic interest to even the simplest of basslines. “I like to play simple basslines, but sometimes the simplest line is actually the most difficult thing to play; in music, in general, I think the simple things are actually very difficult, just to be able to groove and groove hard.”
Onto Bona’s sonic arsenal: it would seem that simplicity rules these days. “I always let my fingers take care of my tone. I can make the sound rounder or make the sound bigger, depending where I attack the string, and I move around from pickup to pickup, so if I’m playing a ballad I usually play on the neck pickup, but if it’s a fast tune with a lot of energy I like to play with more staccato so I will play on the bridge pickup.”
Having sung from an early age, Bona has also developed an innate understanding of melody. “When you look at Cuban musicians, there might be 16 guys on stage and 14 of them will be singing! You know? When you look at The Beatles or any of the English rock bands from the 60s and 70s, they all used to sing! But we don’t teach people how to sing anymore. It’s not about having a pretty voice; it’s just that when you sing, music penetrates your body in a different kind of way. I always tell bass players to sing when they play.”
“It’s the same with improvisation. I don’t want to have to learn solo lines, I just want to feel the moment and then play whatever comes to me, because that’s the thing with any instrument I play – bass, guitar, whatever, I want to just follow the music that’s in my mind, so anything I can sing I can play. My fingers just follow what I come up with in my head and that all comes from singing.”
Taken from Bona’s 2013 solo album, Bonafied, the song Tumba La Nyama centres on a looped vocal theme and showcases Bona’s falsetto singing voice, along with his intrinsic understanding of harmony. “I hear a lot of different tones at the same time when I sing. I can record background vocals alone, but it won’t sound like one person doing it. My mother conducted a choir in church, so I grew up singing and I like to try and simulate what I used to hear when I was a kid. I don’t write charts. The only music I read is when I play with other people; I just go and feel the notes, feel the harmony and build up different vocal layers.”
It only takes one listen to Bonafied, or indeed, any of Richard Bona’s mesmerisingly rounded solo work over the last 20-odd years, and you’ll know exactly what he means. “When you hear me play the bass you can hear that I sing, that I’ve played percussion for many years and that I play guitar too, so it’s a combination of all those things. The balafon I was playing as a kid, I can still hear in my bass playing today.”