Bass Players to Know: Richard Bona
While the past few Bass Players to Know columns have focused on blues, rock, and soul of the US and UK, it’s about time we discover what the rest of the world has to offer. Whenever I think about “world music,” or the sounds, styles, and instruments of different cultures, I frequently stumble upon records featuring Richard Bona. His playing is beautiful and unique, rooted in African rhythms and infused with jazzy harmonic sensibilities. His unmistakable falsetto vocals and multi-instrumental abilities result in records that are diverse, imaginative, and layered with catchy melodies and complex grooves. If you’re looking for new music to be inspired by and a remarkable bass player to know, it’s time to check out Richard Bona.
So Who Is Richard Bona?
A native of Minta, a village in Cameroon, Bona took to music as a young child and quickly began playing anything he could get his hands on: guitar, percussion, flute, and more. After moving to Douala at age 11, he started performing around the city with various bands. A local French jazz club encouraged him to put a band together and Bona gained access to the club owners’ record collection. Upon hearing Jaco Pastorius’ self titled album, he became fascinated by the electric bass.
As Bona continued to study, compose, and perform, he spent time in France, Germany, and eventually moved to the New York. He landed the bass role in Joe Zawinul’s band in the mid 1990’s and soon found himself playing alongside countless jazz artists. Since then, he has worked with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, Harry Belafonte, Randy Brecker, The Pat Metheny Group, Bobby McFerrin, George Benson, Mike Stern, Lee Ritenour, Bela Fleck, and countless others. He has also put out a handful of solo records, including Reverence, Tiki, Ten Shades of Blue, Bona Makes You Sweat: Live, and the latest record, Bonafied.
Let’s Talk Style
Listening to Bona is like visiting a bakery that excels at making every kind of treat. How are the pastries? Amazing. Cookies and brownies? Incredible. Cupcakes? Unbelievable. You want to try everything they make, because you know that the baker has practiced and perfected every recipe. It’s easy to say the same thing about Bona. His bass playing? Amazing. Singing? Incredible. Rhythmic sensibilities, melodies, improvisational skills, compositions and arrangements? Unbelievable. He is a superbly talented individual, who, like the baker, has practiced and developed every aspect of musicality. His solo records are the vast display cases that show off the diversity and range of his musical mind and his bass playing is nothing short of delicious.
It’s no wonder that Bona took to the music of Pastorius; his tone, fretless playing, athletic right hand, use of harmonics, and soloing are clearly reminiscent of Jaco’s style. He plays with a funky and percussive edge, integrating rhythmic punctuation, dead notes, audible hic-cups, and slides. His solo records and work with artists like Mike Stern and Joe Zawinul place huge importance on solid, syncopated, and repetitive rhythmic patterns—no doubt a link to his Cameroonian heritage and experiences traveling the world.
Bona effortlessly goes back and forth between right hand techniques, switching from traditional finger style, to slap and pop, palm muting, and using his thumb, index and middle fingers to play root notes and chords. He takes full advantage of the range of the instrument, often accenting notes with their respective octave, adding high melodies and chords, and returning to the lower notes on the B and E strings. As a soloist, he references vocal melodies, horn parts, and familiar musical quotes while throwing in quick, technique driven lines and clever chord substitutions.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Please Don’t Stop” (Richard Bona and John Legend: Tiki)
This track speaks to Bona’s pop sensibilities with the perfect balance of structure, groove, melody, and harmony. Legend and Bona trade verses in their respective languages, bringing together soulful lyrics from different regions. Marked by some seriously funky licks and a hard-hitting groove, Bona shows of his mastery of technique by integrating quick right hand rhythms, slaps, pops, and finger style fills. Multiple listens may be required and desired.
“Shiva Mantra” (Richard Bona: Ten Shades of Blue)
Focused around an Indian-inspired sound scape, this song is layered with intricate harmonies, percussion accents, and unique melodies. As the song progresses, you can hear quick high-register phrases, fretless slides, and a percussive vocal riff mimicked by the bass. This song is a great anchor for the record, embracing Bona’s multicultural influences and diverse musical relationships.
“Silver Lining” (Mike Stern: These Times)
Bona has collaborated with Mike Stern on a number of projects, and with good reason. His effortlessly lays down a groove, complete with percussive hic-cups and quick rhythmic flourishes. He jumps in with beautiful falsetto vocals, accented by the guitar melody and a descending diatonic line at the end of the verse. The song transitions into a fast-paced, funky section marked by a chromatic bass line, building tension until the music opens up, calms down, and sets up the solos. Bona’s remarkable right hand drives the song, keeping pace with the rhythmic nuances of the drums and percussion.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Richard Bona? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!