One of music's criminally underrated geniuses, South African electric bassist and composer Carlo Mombelli has carved out a most extraordinary performing and writing career in music. Throughout his four decades as a performer, Mombelli has forged one of the most distinctive electric bass approaches in Jazz, established himself as South Africa's most exceptional composer, and has nurtured and developed an inspiring creative improvising and composing scene in Johannesburg.
With last year's release of his latest album Angels and Demons
, Mombelli surprised listeners yet again with an entirely new ensemble conception on what is easily one of his most remarkable records to date. All About Jazz
: Thinking on your earliest experiences, you began on piano, but switched to electric bass. How did that happen? Carlo Mombelli
: I started playing piano because I wanted to be a classical musician. At the age of eight I went to see the ballet Swan Lake
. All I knew then was the classical side of it, so I begged my parents to send me to piano lessons, but it never really happened. My Dad was an Italian chef in a hotel, so I just used to play on the piano in their hall where they'd do functions. Then I got a little guitar and I started playing it. When I finally got to high school, they had music as a subject. So I decided to audition for that without my parents' knowledge!
I'm going to deviate for a moment, before I get to the bass. My father always wanted me to be a chef. That was his main thing. He did use me in his restaurant when he found out that I could sing a bit. My dad's restaurant had a cover band that used to play dance music, covers, stuff like that. I loved to listen to them. One day I was singing in the background, and someone heard me sing in the restaurant. He said he wanted me for the Drakensberg Boys Choir. So he went to my dad and said, "Look, your son's got a beautiful voice." My father put two and two together and said, "No, sorry, he works in my restaurant." So, I started singing in my father's restaurant.
It was scandalous, because he also had a strip artist in his club. In those days, the censorship was very high. They even used to put black strips on Michelangelo's statues! Nudity was forbidden in the 1970s. But he had the stripper. I was 12 years old at the time; I used to sing a few tunes and end off with Michael Jackson's "Ben," which is about a mouse. And then the stripper would come on. She would strip completely down and she would have a python that would wrap itself around her body.
That was the only time my dad ever heard my music. And then we ran away from my father because he had many, many girlfriends. Well, we ran away when I was 10, but I went back to stay with my father when I was 12 for a while, because I was torn between my mother and my father.
At high school, I got into classical music and I was into bands like Led Zeppelin. I loved The Police; Bob Marley; Emerson Lake, and Palmer; and I loved Pink Floyd. And then someone played me Weather Report
, and I heard the bass line that Jaco Pastorius
played. It just spoke to me. I knew I was going to be a musician since I was eight years old, but when Jaco played that, I convinced my mother to get me a 60 Rand Epiphone bass.
We learned basic music stuff in High School; it wasn't that heavy. But that's the only formal music education I ever got. I took what I did on piano, and converted it onto the bass. I've never had a bass lesson in my life. So I took what I was learning on the piano, and I worked it out. AAJ:
Can you talk more about the process you undertook to build your skills on the bass? CM:
I used to go to gigs and looked at how people held the instrument. Then I got into a band. I've always been into composition, and I started composing in High School, and I had a band on the weekends. There was this practice room in Pretoria. It was quite far, and we used to walk. During school holidays, we'd live there. The guitarist had a brother who knew a lot about modes and stuff like that. In those days, we didn't have gig bags, just these big coffins, or flight cases. We had to walk a long distance to the rehearsal room, and if I carried his guitar case, he'd teach me a mode his brother taught him. So I learned to play by playing in bands, listening to things, transcribing.
And then I got to play with guitarist Johnny Fourie
. That was my school of music. I was 22 when I got to play with him. He saw me play my music, and so he called me to join his band. I said no, because I said I wasn't good enough to play Jazz. Then he called me back, and said to me that I was only going to get one chance. So I took it.
I had been listening to and transcribing Johnny's stuff. They had a band in Johannesburg, and I used to record everything with a tape recorder and bootleg everything to try to figure it out. They were playing Chick Corea
tunes, Billy Cobham
, and all of that. And so I learned from playing live onstage with Johnny. He nurtured me, and that's how I learned music. AAJ:
Now that time with Johnny is when you and drummer Kevin Gibson
started playing together, correct? CM:
That's right, it was the same band. He was 17. I was 22, so he was the youngster. We had a gig six nights a week for six months, playing Jazz every night. And then in the breaks, Johnny would come to us and say, "Listen, this doesn't sound right, you should try it like this." We used to practice in the break room. We'd never go outside, smoke a joint, or hang out by the bar. We'd be practicing in the breaks. I never stopped practicing. AAJ:
Shortly after this, we see the idea of your group Abstractions forming. Can you talk about forming that band, and can you talk about how saxophonist Duke Makasi got involved? CM:
Duke Makasi was in the band that was playing six nights a week. It was in Sandton at a club called Spats. It was a very posh bar. I remember one night, people threw peanuts at us! And at the break, Johnny picked up the peanuts from the stage, took it back and put it in their bowl. So, they weren't really into Jazz. But Duke played in that band; it was him, Kevin Gibson, and Stan Jones, who was a British musician who lived here and played like Bill Evans
. I played for six months with Duke Makasi, and it was unbelievable.
When the gig stopped, I decided to really woodshed. I was married already, as I got married when I was 23. So this gig was happening just before I got married. My wife Sandra was a goldsmith at the time, and we made the decision that she was going to work and try to pay for our flat in YeovilleI think it was 300 Rand a monthso we could cover expenses. I just practiced eight to 10 hours every day. That's all I did: I practiced and I practiced. And then with my compositions, I decided to form Abstractions. I went back to Johnny Fourie, and I asked him to play in my band. We were gigging three times a week all over Joburg. We weren't making any money, but we were in all the arts magazines! I still say that I'm the most famous un-famous musician in South Africa! AAJ:
If we look at that time period, parts of your career's path are very similar to what some South African punk rock musicians were doing in the eighties. Just like guys like James Phillips, you're playing at Jameson's in Joburg at the time, you're recording for Shifty Records... CM:
My neighbors in Joburg were the Cherry Faced Lurchers! They lived right next door to me in Yeoville, and they used to smoke dope all day. So I grew up in that Jameson's era with The Genuines, Mac McKenzie, all those guys. It was wild: we had a fantastic time together, even though we were having a tough time. It was the eighties, and they were rough because PW Botha was putting us in a state of emergency.
Jameson's was incredible place in the eighties. The clubs in the eighties could decide if they wanted to be a whites-only place or not. Jameson's was completely multiracial. This was underground and of course it wasn't liked by the police, but it was fantastic because it was how South Africa should be. Everybody was there. I would go down there, then the African Jazz Pioneers would be playing. On Saturday, there would be little festivals running the whole day. The African Jazz Pioneers, then guitarist Allen Kwela, they'd all be playing. Then I would play, and then The Genuines would go on.
I used to do this solo bass gig every Friday night. Now, this is around 1984, before people were thinking about doing solo bass concerts. There was a club in Hillbrow called the Black Sun. And every Friday night The Genuines would play thereMac McKenzie, Hilton Schilder, Ian Herman
. At midnight, directly after them I would play a one-hour set of solo bass. Thursday nights I'd play Jameson's. Sometimes we'd also play Kippie's. That was a smaller place, and sometimes they'd book you for a whole week! A lot of things were happening. AAJ:
We hear you emerging as a band leader on the record On the Other Side
. How did that come about? CM:
[Shifty Records founder] Lloyd Ross approached me. He used to go down to Jameson's, and he was recording all the obscure bands at the time. With Shifty Records, he kind of documented history. He decided he was going to document what has happened in Johannesburg at the time, and he documented all those bands. He came to me and he said he wants to record Abstractions. We went to a studiohe was staying in a caravan where Gold Reef City now is. He had a set up where we couldn't mix after the fact, and we recorded direct to a VHS cassette! Abstractions is recorded onto two track direct. We couldn't do overdubs, so if you made a mistake, you had to redo the whole song. Those wind pipes at the beginning of "Deep Impressions," we did that live. We are all playing wind pipes, then putting them down and playing. It's all live, and then Duke came in a played a tune with us. Later, he did some gigs with us, which was fantastic. I think the SABC even recorded something. AAJ:
We see a fairly sharp pivot following your move to Germany. Can you talk about the decision to move? Additionally, the ensemble make up of Abstractions fully changes when you move, but the name remains. Can you talk about the decision to retain the name Abstractions? CM:
For me, Abstractions has to do with the period of compositions, not personnel. It's about the compositions, and Abstractions' music you'll find is all with guitars. I started writing guitar music and worked all that stuff out on guitar. And I wrote so much music. What we'd do is go to a studio that [folk singers] Des and Dawn Lindberg had in Houghton, we'd rehearse the new music for a week, go out and play for two months, and then rehearse again for a week. It was a serious band.
There were two things that pushed me to leave South Africa. First of all was ECM Records. I was into rock music, and then I discovered Billy Cobham. From there I heard Weather Report and Jaco, and then the thing that Jaco did with Pat Metheny
. Through Pat Metheny I discovered Joni Mitchell
. One thing led to another, and through it all I discovered ECM Records. I became an ECM fanatic.
Also, I had to go into the army. I left home very young. I was 16, I had an abusive stepdad, and when he hit me with his head I decided to leave. I tried to finish school, and then I was all on my own when the army called me up. We were kind of shielded at that time from what was actually happening in South Africa. But I tried to get out of the army. I told them I was gay. Then I went to a psychiatrist, asking him to write a letter that I'm nuts. In the end, I had to go to the army, and it was terrible. They put me in infantry and then I ran away. I went AWOL. There I am AWOL, and they're looking for me, so what was I going to do? I went back and auditioned for the entertainment unit, and I managed to get into it. I figured that would be fine.
When I came out the army, the first thing I did was I cut up my uniform into a million pieces and throw it into a dustbin. Then, Sandra and I started going to all the UDF and End Conscription Campaign. I was handing out pamphlets in Melville, so we really got started getting involved, until the security police came.
At the same time, I wanted Manfred Eicher
to hear my music. Sandra said, "Don't send him a cassette, put one in his hand." So we decided to sell everything for tickets. Then the security police came round to our house. It was early in the morning. Sandra was there; I was visiting my mother. We'd been handing out anti-government pamphlets, and so they had all our names and everything. So they came in. We had the Freedom Charter in the toilet. They said we could use it as toilet paper. We had all these posters on the wall from the UDF; they tore everything down. And they said they were going to call me up to the army now, that's it. I said there was no ways I'm going back to the army. We sold everything. We got ourselves tickets, and we went to Munich. Those were the two things that drove me to get out of here. It was quite a rough time in the eighties.
So we went to Germany, and I was so excited. We had nothing, because we had sold everything. I just had my bass. We had a blue trommel [metal suitcase] with a backup kit of pans. I walked into ECM Records. I was so excited and I was so confident I was going to make it, because my band was really happening. I see a secretary there, and I tell her I'm there to see Manfred Eicher. She tells me it's not possible. I said, "All right, when is it good to make an appointment?" She says, "No, there's a five-year waiting list." I said to her, "Well, look, I've just sold everything just so I can come here and hand him a cassette." She said, "Sorry. Not possible." I asked her if there was any way she could break the rules; I didn't realize at the time that in Germany, you don't break the rules! I walked out of there. I was extremely depressed and I couldn't get back home.
Luckily, I got a gig a few weeks later, playing in a big band. This band did the casino circuit in Europe, and supplied all the fancy ballrooms with music. We used to back up stars like Vicky Leandros. I really had worked hard on my reading, so I was very lucky to get the gig. I worked for them for three years, playing all over Europe. I met a lot of musicians there. There were actually a lot of Americans there. We used to travel to Berlin when the Checkpoint Charlie was still there, and the Berlin Wall was up. We had to do these transit routes.
Anyway, I used to give my cassettes out. I remember bumping into Pat Metheny in the streets in Munich. I gave him a cassette and said, "Mr. Metheny, I'd love you to listen to my music." He gave it right back to me and said, "I don't even have enough time to write to my mother!" I did organize a studio recording, and I got a label that was interested, but I to pay for everything. That was with Peter O'Mara
, Bill Elgart
, and Jurgen Seefelder. I took this cassette, and every time I played somewhere I gave it to someone. There was this guy, Konstantin Weckerhe's this super big guy in what they call Schlagermusikand he invited me to play the 100-year celebration of the English Garden. There were about 60,000-70,000 people there. It was a massive place. And we were playing there, as well as a string quartet. And who else was there? Charlie Mariano
I gave my cassette to Charlie Mariano, and he actually listened to it! He loved my music, and he and I connected. And then he connected me with the guitarist Mick Goodrick
. And that's how I started getting better gigs and playing with beautiful bands. In the end, before we decided to come back to South Africa, I was recording with Lee Konitz
and Egberto Gismonti, and I had the job at a conservatory of music. I started to play and tour with all these great musicians.
But coming back to South Africa again, we moved back in December 1998 with our children. I didn't know anybody, and basically had to start again. It was the best thing we ever did, because I think moving back has been great inspiration for me. I think I've developed something so different, being away from Europe. Being away from all those influences, I've developed a way of writing my compositions that are coming from my bass. My bass is inspiring the way I write my compositions, and my compositions in turn inspire the way I play bass. They're developing at the same time in a unique way. AAJ:
Shortly before your return from Europe, we see the rise of your next ensemble Prisoners of Strange. You made an interesting comment about Abstractions: that the compositional style drove the ensemble's name and identity. So what changed to prompt the new name? CM:
When I moved away from guitar, I did a concert at the Bayerischer Rundfunk in 1996, which was Bats in the Belfry
. That's when I started Prisoners of Strange, as I started moving away from the guitar. Basically, I learned music in a very strange way, in that I didn't go to an institution and a lot of my studying of music was actually when I used to go into the forest at the break time. I was always involved in sound designs. I loved listening to the rustle of the wind in the trees. I started looping, not because of a loop machine I was doing that before loop machinesbut because I heard birds. They would say something and wait. Then there would be an answer, and then something else. And then I would hear that same pattern come back. Nature was full of loops, and that inspired the way I compose my music. I also used to love the sound of traffic; I'd sit and listen to traffic. I used to tune in to shortwave radio and the in-between frequencies. I think in the Prisoners of Strange, I started getting involved with sound designs more than ever before, writing music for toys and springs.
I got involved in springs because I used to have a desk lamp. I used to write music, and I'd play the springs on it. The sound of the springs was just incredible. I started collecting desk lamps and I used to take them to my gigs. I'd play, mic them up, and create. Then I started working with water, and I also started building instruments. So I started building my compositions. I called it Prisoners of Strange, because people thought that my music was strange, even though I
didn't think so. For me, it was normal, but I became a prisoner of their perception of what "strange" was.
It was a beautiful band. The peak was when I had Marcus Wyatt
, Siya Makuzeni
, and Justin Badenhorst, and we were playing the Moers Festival in 2010. We were doing quite well, but we had some personnel problems. We had a fallout, and then I just stopped that and I moved on to the next project. AAJ:
To your point of the ensemble sounds changing, if we think about your composition "Me, the Mango Picker," we can see that in action: the first version you do on the Abstractions album Dancing in a Museum
and the second version on the Prisoners of Strange album When Serious Babies Dance
shows a drastic change. CM:
When I wrote "Me, the Mango Picker," I was really thinking about South Africa then. I was basically a South African living abroad. Sandra and I were always South Africans in Europe. Then, just before I came back, I decided to write the lyrics for "Me, the Mango Picker," which I recorded again in South Africa. Now the song is about how the mangoes are ripe in South Africa. I'm the mango picker, and now it's time for me to go home and pick them. It is a simple song, but more people have recorded it. People like it. AAJ:
You mentioned drummer Justin Badenhorst. One thing that is striking, if we think about your career since your return to South Africa, is the degree to which you became a mentor to young artists. You've brought a number of great young artists into your bands, and you also now are a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. How did that develop? CM:
I'm always trying to find musicians that have got something unique. What I liked about Justin is the sound of his cymbals; he has an amazing sound. With compositions, I don't really sit down to write music. I think I have a gift for composition that comes to me naturally, but I don't sit down to write. It comes through stories, things that I've experienced, things that I dream, and photos that I see. My teenage years weren't happy. I've got two brothers who live on the street with blankets and I drive to Wits in the morning and wave at them, but they're junkies. Luckily, I ran away from home; otherwise, it could have been me. But I tried to make something of myself. CM:
When you get a PhD or a professorship, it doesn't make you more important. It doesn't make you a better musician. But it's given me a bit of self-worth, knowing where I came from. It makes my family very proud. And it's fantastic to have it on your credit card; they take you a bit more seriously! But anyway, I teach at Wits. I teach from being a freelance musician for thirty-five years. My teaching comes from being a musician. I've got a gift as well for teaching; I taught myself, so I must have some sort of a gift for it. If I could teach myself, surely I could teach others. But I'm more interested in the voice of the student; that's why I don't fit very much into the mold of the Jamey Aebersold
system of teaching. I have a concept of I'll play the chord, and I'll let the student find a scale that goes with that chord. I do teach normal Jazz theory, but then I take it a step further and find out what the student has to say on that chord. What is he hearing on that chord? I can then correct him, like "this really doesn't work, try like this." So it's more of nurturing the sound of the student.
I teach composition, and I ask my students to bring me a composition. And then I basically teach them through
their composition how to create balance and form. I build up a composition that in the end is theirs, but at a high level. I'm very much into trying to find the voice of the student; by doing that, I have learned so much. These youngsters come along, and they show you things that you didn't think existed. Instead of forcing your system on them, you've got to be open. AAJ:
It's interesting you bring up Aebersold, as you've done your own method book with Intergalactic Bass
. But to your point, it's not a traditional method book. CM:
You know, Hal Leonard saw that book, and they approached me. They wanted to release it. Those dots I use in the book, I sat and I figured out all those ways of playing. And I used to make little dots. I used to draw with a little ruler my fretboard, and place the dots. So I've still got my book; it's a small little book and it's wrapped in a Mickey Mouse birthday wrapping. I now use it with my students just to show them the shapes. It's hard for me to teach in a normal, regular way. I never studied in an institution, so I don't know how they studied.
I never studied ear training, for example. My ear training was all my vinyls that I sat and transcribed. If I wanted to learn how Egberto Gismonti approached a tune, I would sit down and transcribe it. I learned the formal composition techniques by transcribing and trying to figure it out myself. So I don't have a system for teaching ear training, for example, and I don't have a system for teaching composition. It all came to me in a very, very strange way.
There are two schools of teaching and learning, and we must not neglect the oral tradition of teaching. Where do the flamenco artists learn? They don't go to universities; they sit around a campfire and they pass it down through an aural tradition. Take Mbuso Khoza. His way of learning has got just as much value as the critical thinking in university. Critical thinking is great, because you learn to analyze your works, and it's a fantastic experience to go university. There are a lot of pros in going to university, but there's also a lot of pros by not
going to university, where you learn instead learn aurally before you learn to write. AAJ:
You bring up Mbuso Khoza. If we think to the dissolution of Prisoners of Strange, you move into a very fascinating new project and new sound with the Stories
album and project, which involves Mbuso. How did the Stories project develop? CM:
Stories actually started in Europe. I had a band with Adrian Mears
, which ran for a number of years. I had a residency in Switzerland, working at the Jazz school for a month. I had to play every week in the Jazz club with students of the school. It was brand new music, and so every week we did new compositions of mine. At the same time I had the opportunity to put a professional band together, and we played at art galleries in Basel. I knew Adrian, he was teaching at the school and played on Bats in the Belfry
. I loved his playing, and I spoke to him and told him I wanted to put together a project. There was a drummer I had worked with many years ago in Munich named Dejan Terzic
. He was now teaching in Bern, a fantastic drummer. I was looking for a cellist as well, and I got in touch with Daniel Pezzotti. He's passed away now, he had cancer. So I started Stories there with them. I used to go back to Europe every year to perform with Stories.
Then I ran a jam session here in Joburg called the "Lab of Learning." I find that purists stifle the creativity of the art. Debussy said that "rules do not make works of art. Art makes the rules." So I decided to create this Lab of Learning jam session, and to open it up for all ages, all levels, and all types of music. And I ran it once a week for two years. It was very successful, and people used to love it. I would play with my band, and while we were playing, people would come in and put their names down in the book. They would say what type of instrument they play, what style they play. In the breaks I would put together a program. I would take a drummer who's just starting out, and I'd put him together with an incredible guitarist. I designed an evening where everything was happening: all styles, all levels. Then I would go onstage and make everybody feel like a superstar. Afterwards, I would give critique. I would go to the singer and say, "What you did tonight, it was a great song that you played, but your guitar was a little out of tune, and if you tuned it you'd sound so much better." People would come back every week. They never felt threatened or insulted. And every week, they would be getting better.
One week, Mbuso arrives, jumps up there and sings, and he just knocks me out. So I call him and ask him to come to my house. I just asked him to jam on the way I was playing. What a combination! I said, "All right, Mbuso, I was going overseas to go record with my band. I'm going to organize funding for you to come. Are you interested?" There we went, and that's how we got the Stories
album and project together, with Mbuso involved in Europe.
With Mbuso, the only song that he really sings is "Song for Sandra," because we worked a lot on it. Mbuso's way of learning is so different. But he's incredible in the way that he sees music. So now when I work with Mbuso, I tell him, for example, "Mbuso, this song is about peace. Kyle's going to take a solo after the bass solo; you come in and improvise." Mbuso used to come in every night with different lyrics, different melodies, but he always told the story. You have to change. You've got to see who you're working with. I'd come with a composition, then I started arranging it. When I arrange compositions, I'm thinking purely about the musicians that are going to play the composition. I'll make it for them that when we play together it's pure magic. And I try to not just make it in their comfort zone; I give them areas where they can really push their limits.
So the compositions in my band are really for my musicians, and I think that's good band leaders do. Miles Davis
, Art Blakey
, they thought about the musicians in a way that the musicians are able to grow. Take Siya Makuzeni. She's incredible, and she grew a lot in my band. But Siya Makuzeni would have been Siya Makuzeni without me. It's not me that made her, or that made Marcus. But at that stage in their lives, I gave them the opportunity to experiment and grow their voices in their way. So my projects are about giving musicians the opportunity to choose to grow. If they're growing in my band, then my band is growing and becoming strong as well. AAJ:
You transition from a particular sound on Stories
to something very new on your follow-up album I Press My Spine to the Ground
. While Mbuso remains in the ensemble, we see the personnel otherwise change with the arrival of Kyle Shepherd and Kesivan Naidoo
. How did that develop? CM:
The first time I met Kyle, he was sitting in a little recording booth by himself playing, and I could hear him in the speakers. Nobody was looking at Kyle, but he was just playing. He didn't realize anybody was listening to him, but he played the most incredible music. You get some musicians that only play incredible music once they're in front of an audience, but when it comes to the rehearsal, it's "just a rehearsal." But if you can get musicians that play in your rehearsal as if they were playing live, then you've got a band and you've got musicians that can play. That means that they're playing from a deep spiritual place; I want to play with musicians that have got a very deep spiritual connection to life and to the music. I found that in Kyle. I saw him play with his band, and I said I'm going to ask him to play. I didn't realize that he had all my CDs already! So I asked Kyle, and then I decided I was going to go for a South African band, so I called Kesivan and Mbuso. When we played with that band, I realized that when you perform with South Africans, you reach a level of spirituality that is incredible. And the audience goes into an absolute trance. We would get standing ovations in the middle of the set! AAJ:
How did it transition to the ensemble we hear on Angels and Demons
That band was just incredible, but Kesivan went overseas. I thought, "Oh, what am I going to do? I can't top this." But I started writing this other music, and that took me to Angels and Demons
. Many things happened for me last year. I went to find my father, with whom I lost contact. Last time I saw my father was 36 years ago. I found him in Athens, and so I composed a piece called "Athens," and another piece called "In the End We All Belong."
It came out of pure emotions, those tracks, after seeing my father. There he was at the airport, still working at 81. It was just incredible to see him after 36 years. He had an iPhone my sister gave him. I said, "Dad, let me show you my music." He saw it for the first time. He couldn't believe it. He was so excited to hear it.
Then I came back to South Africa, went back to Italy, and it was then that my mom passed away. She married this crazy stepdad, and she made one decision after the next that was wrong. I mean, I was a mistake she made when she was 16, but my wife doesn't think so! Everything she did was a mistake, and she could not get out of that. So I wrote a piece called "Like a Mouse in the Maze," and I had to get a classical pianist to play it, because I can only play it slowly.
"Children of Aleppo" is on the album, and that's from a photo I saw. I'd been working on that piece for a while, actually. There are photos of the children in Aleppo that I saw. And then I thought, "This is a song for all children on the planet that had been abused by grownups, by rulers that are meant to protect them." Through that hunger for power and that greed, it's the children that suffer. At the end of the music, you can hear these butterflies; the children change into these butterflies and they just fly off. That's my visual that I hope people can hear in the music.