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Bona covers all jazz bases

Richard Bona. Picture by Ingrid C Hertfelder

It is a long way from a mud-brick village in the heart of the West African nation of Cameroon to the recording studios of New York.

But that is the path trodden by electric bass player and singer Richard Bona, one of the headliners of the Perth International Jazz Festival.

The 48-year-old African is now regarded one of the world’s finest bassists, a musician who fuses the rhythms of his native country with contemporary jazz and funk sounds.

A resident of New York for the past 20 years, Bona says he began making music as a percussionist in his Cameroon village at the age of three.

“I really began playing with my family, who were all church musicians,” he recently told an interviewer. From percussion he graduated to playing the church organ, and began to experiment with home-made guitars and other stringed instruments.

He didn’t always have the money to buy the instruments he needed, so improvised their construction from scrap materials found around his village. One home-made guitar was fashioned with cords strung over an old motor-cycle tank.

Bona was obviously a precocious and musically talented youngster who as a teenager moved to the city in Cameroon, where he discovered the bass playing of renowned artist Jaco Pastorius. “From that point I decided that the electric bass would be my instrument,” he said.

But Bona’s musical development was not confined to the bass. He began to sing with his bands while on bass, and learnt a series of other instruments, such as keyboards, broadening his capability and creativity.

He was only 13 when he fronted his first jazz ensemble in Cameroon, and by his late teens had played in bands in France and Germany.

In 1995 he relocated to New York, where he soon began playing with such high-profile artists as Harry Belafonte (where he was musical director on a European tour), Larry Coryell, Michael and Randy Brecker and Mike Stern.

He has also featured on albums by his idol Jaco Pastorious and toured extensively with the Pat Metheny Group.

When not gigging somewhere in the world Bona holds down a professorship in music at New York University.

It is these credentials that Bona and his latest band will bring to the Perth International Jazz Festival at the end of this month – the fourth such event created by local jazz professional Graham Wood, who founded the popular Ellington Jazz Club in Northbridge.

This year’s festival will be a three-day event starting on Friday evening, May 29, and running across a series of city venues until Sunday.

There will be jazz at 19 venues over the three days from 52 jazz performers in a blend of free and ticketed concerts.

Also coming from New York will be pianist Barney McAll, an Australian talent who has called the city home for more than 20 years. Another New York-based musician is saxophonist Troy Roberts, well-known to Perth audiences since his days as a WAAPA student.

There will also be musicians from Poland (Artur Dutkiewcz Trio), France (singer Rachel Claudio) , Germany (Timo Vollbrecht and Keisuke Matsuno,) Brazil (bossa nova singer Juliana Areias) and Italy (free jazz exponent and experimenter Gianni Denitto).

The inclusions of such international artists suggests the festival is maturing into a vibrant, truly cosmopolitan affair.

“PIJF has come a long way over the past three years, from a good idea bubbling away in the background to a high-quality festival,” Wood say. “And it has a bright future with future plans to expand to Elizabeth Quay and Yagan Square as our city matures culturally.”

Wood says he is particularly looking forward to hearing Bona live for the first time as the artist and his band move from the Melbourne Jazz Festival across to Perth.

“You’ll actually be able to see him for $25, plus four more international acts, two international and interstate acts and local bands at the Perth Cultural Centre,” says Wood, underlining the value-for-money basis of the festival, where a single ticket will give fans several acts at the one venue.

The Perth International Jazz Festival is on May 29-31. Details: ''''''