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World Music Features

Web Exclusive: Richard Bona

By Robert Kaye
Published October 9, 2008

Bona Appetit!

By the time Richard Bona moved to New York in 1995, he was a bassist of exceptional ability. In fact his skill set was such that it his reputation quickly eclipsed his knowledge of the New York musical community. While he got a gig playing with jazz fusion icon Joseph Zawinul after they first met, his first encounter with future boss and mentor Harry Belafonte didn’t go quite as smoothly.


“He hung up on me,” Bona explains, now laughing about it. “If I’d run into a guy by the name of Joe, who was a trumpeter at such-and-such a club, I’d write that down. So this guy is telling me he’s Harry Belafonte and I’m asking him ‘What instrument do you play?’ ‘Where did we meet?’ He tells me, ‘We never met.’ I’m looking at my cards and I can’t find this guy. ‘You don’t know Harry Belafonte?!’ So I said, ‘No. Do you know Richard Bona?’ And he hung up.”


Bona told his roommate, who clued him in, wondering if maybe it was time to find a new roommate. Picking up the story, he recalls telling himself, “Oh my God, what did I just do? I’m in New York and I’m blowing everything up.” Fortunately, the legend tried again few days later, asking again for Richard Bona, to which the bassist replied: 'Yes, sir!'”


Richard Bona was born in the village of Minta in the eastern portion of Cameroon in 1967, which explains his unfamiliarity with Belafonte. He began performing in public when he was just five years old, playing balafon and singing in the village church with his mother and four sisters.


“I just picked it up as a kid,” he says of his first wooden, marimba-like instrument. “It was the main instrument people played in that part of my country. When I moved to Duoala with my father in 1978, I picked up the guitar. Kids there weren’t playing traditional instruments any more. When you’re a kid you just kind of hang around and try to do the same things.”


Only Bona, now 11, was soon playing guitar professionally with skills beyond his years. The young Bona played his guitar in the daytime and at night could be heard jamming with all sorts of musicians, including his school’s supervisor, modern bikutsi master Messi Martin. Two years later, he began what would become a 10-year tenure playing at a local jazz club. It was during that time that Bona changed his primary instrument. “I was already a working musician playing the guitar. Then I switched to electric bass when I