Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Bassist Richard Bona has combined the music of his native Cameroon with reggae and jazz to create a personal hybrid. His virtuoso technique and smooth sound are reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius, and his playing is often accompanied by his light and airy singing voice.
Richard Bona was born on October 28th, 1967 in Minta, a small village in Eastern Cameroon. He grew up playing traditional music with his grandfather, a percussionist. Bona also sang with mother and sisters in the village church, starting at age five.
As a child, Bona played the balafón, a pitched wooden percussion instrument related to the marimba and xylophone, for upwards of eight hours a day. When he was eleven, his father got a job as a truck driver in the capital city of Douala, and the boy was exposed to the electric guitar and bass guitar. Bona was too poor to afford a guitar, so he constructed his own, using brake cables from bicycles for strings.
As a teenager, Bona would go to school but not to class, and instead could often be found jamming with his schoolmaster, playing music throughout the day. He was asked to form a jazz band in Douala, and so he began to expose himself to many different kinds of different music. It was during this period that he was first exposed to the music of Jaco Pastorius. Pastorius’ music had such a profound impact on Bona that he gave up the guitar for the bass.
In 1989, Bona moved to Germany, where he studied at the Düsseldorf Music Institute. Afterwards he relocated to Paris, where he played with many well-known African musicians including Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango and Malian singer Salif Keita. Bona stayed in France until 1995, when French authorities refused to renew his work papers because more than 1,500 French bass players were having problems finding work. As a result, Bona moved to the United States and landed in New York City, at the encouragement of guitarist Mike Stern.
In New York, Bona found work as a musician almost immediately. In 1996, Bona added his flavor to the Joe Zawinul's Zawinul Syndicate album My People, and toured the world with the Weather Report founder. In 1997, he was working with guitarist Larry Coryell and is featured on his album Spaces Revisited along with drummer Billy Cobham. This album also includes “Variations on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
Bona was heard performing by Jake Holmes, one of the chief songwriters for Harry Belafonte, and the bassist was offered a position as Belafonte's musical director. He stayed with the Jamaican-American singer for over a year and a half. Since then, he has performed with artists ranging from Tito Puente to Mike Stern to Randy Brecker, quickly establishing a reputation as a versatile player who can move with ease betwee fusion, salsa, jazz, and even country music.
In 1998, with help from saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Bona secured a record deal with Columbia Records. His 1999 debut album Scenes From My Life captured Bona’s airy, vocals on numbers like “Dipita,” and showcased his compositions, such as “New Bell.” Bona's compelling voice has a high resonance level and he couples it nicely with a penetrating falsetto.
Bona released his second album, Kaze Ga Kureta Melody, in 2000 and in 2001 he released Reverence. The opening title track on this second album is a stripped-down Bona vocal, with abstract percussion. The absence of instruments casts the nuances of his voice into high relief.
On “Ekwa Mwato (Affirmation of the Spirits),” Bona constructed an infectious salsa groove, complete with congas and piano montunos, once again demonstrating his ability to move between genres with ease. Bona’s ability as a diverse composer is fully recognized on this album. His bass playing is subtle and understated, yet very supportive of the music around him.
In 2002, Bona joined guitarist Pat Metheny on tour as a percussionist and vocalist. In 2003, Bona moved to Universal Records, and released Munia The Tale. On this album, Bona continued to explore his personal hybrid of electric African jazz. The sounds are a little lighter on this album but the vocals and the bass playing are still extremely grounded and pleasing to the ear. In 2005, Bona released Tiki, followed by 2008’s Richard Bona Makes You Sweat-Live, an album recorded live in Budapest, Hungary.
Bona lives in New York City and is on the music faculty at New York University. Bona has said of education, “I believe in education. I teach a lot, I love doing it. I feel like it would be not fair for me to get what I got and not have a chance to give an education. Little by little, I realized teachers are my heroes.”
Select Discography As Richard Bona
As Richard Bona
Scenes From My Life (Columbia, 1999)
Kaze Ga Kureta Melody (Columbia, 2000)
Reverence (Columbia, 2001)
Munia: The Tale (Universal, 2003)
Tiki (Universal, 2005)
Bona Makes You Sweat-Live (Universal, 2008)
With Zawinul Syndicate
My People (1996)
With Larry Coryell
Spaces Revisited (1997)
Contributor: Jared Pauley