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Carlo Mombelli: Angels and Demons

Seton Hawkins By

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You can see my angels and my demons pushing together, and they're pushing into this form of beauty. —Carlo Mombelli
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 Yeoville—I think it was 300 Rand a month—so 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 there—Mac 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 studio—he 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.
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