Etienne Mbappe: Silky Master of the 4th Dimension

Alan Bryson By

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Joe Zawinul was a great story teller... We were on the road with long hours to kill with some overnight drives, for me it was like a kid in Africa listening to his grandfather tell stories. Wow, I was drinking in his words...
Etienne Mbappe plays bass so smoothly that you could imagine he wears silk gloves—and you would be correct. In fact he is the only musician in the world who has an endorsement deal with a silk glove manufacturer. He is a musician's musician, a world class bassist based in Paris. Originally from Cameroon in Western Africa, he began his musical career in Paris in the 80s, playing with the leading names on the African music scene. He toured with the band Toure Kunda, often called the African Beatles due to their popularity, and was part of Ultramarine, a groundbreaking world music fusion band.

Eventually he was recruited by jazz legend Joe Zawinul to join his band. Later he was asked by guitarist John McLaughlin, another music icon, to become a member of his 4th Dimension band. This interview was part of a series of audio interviews I did in 2013 with all the members of The Ringers, a group that featured three guitarists: Jimmy Herring, Wayne Krantz, and Michael Landau, Keith Carlock on drums, and Etienne Mbappe on bass. It was originally published on my site Talking2musicians in audio format.

African & World Music

All About Jazz: This is special for me because this is the first time I've had a chance to speak with a musician from Africa. I'm curious, did you see the movie that Bela Fleck did? He went to Africa to try and find the roots of the banjo, and he played with local musicians.

Etienne Mbappe: No not yet, but actually I've seen some clips on the Internet, like YouTube, and I know he went to West Africa, like Mali, and he put together a band with Oumou Sangare and some other musicians from Mali, and they toured the United States. But I haven't seen the movie, but I heard about the experience.

AAJ: It's very good, I had a chance to see it a few months ago. It's interesting for me, when I came to Europe from America in the 80s, I lived very close to the border to France, near Strasbourg. That was before satellite television was wide spread, but I could watch television from France and I loved the music shows that they had. There was a lot of exposure to African music, there was a show called "Les Enfants du rock" and they had a lot of concerts with African groups. The beauty of it was, I could go to Strasbourg and easily find CDs from African artists. Usually they would be compilation CDs, and I noticed you played with one of my favorite artists, Salif Keita. I really love the song he did, "Wamba."

EM: Oh yes, I remember that! (Etienne sings a couple of lines from the opening of the song.)

AAJ: "N Tesse" by Manfila Kanté was another one of my favorites, and the band Toure Kunda were great.

EM: You know, the 80s were really great years for African music in Europe. It was when what they call World Music really exploded. Some if it really started in France too, because there were so many people from all over Africa meeting in Paris. At that time I was a young musician, I began my career as a professional musician in 1984. So I went straight into this African music craze. People like Youssou N'Dour had a big hit, and it really took off. I was just 20 years old at the time, and I was part of it. I played with all those great musicians, because most of them were living in Paris.

AAJ: You knew the Toure Kunda guys? They were amazing!

EM: I toured with them! I went all over the world with them, and Manfila Kanté. Toure Kunda were so big in France at the time, really really big, it was a great moment in music, and Paris was at the center. At that time we were young musicians and great bands like Talking Heads were coming to experience this African vibe. So I did a lot of recording sessions for famous pop bands who came over from London and America. Those years were just an exciting and great time.

AAJ: You're right, I remember Sting doing a project, and Peter Gabriel did something.

EM: Yeees! It was great because Peter Gabriel took some Africans on tour with him and that was tremendous, it gave them worldwide exposure, and made them famous. The 80s were a great time for African music.

Musical Beginning

AAJ: Tell me a bit about growing up in Cameroon and how you got started. I read that you first started with guitar.

EM: Yes that's right. Most of us in Africa start out with the guitar because it's easier to find. A family might have an acoustic guitar, and that was the guitar for all the kids. Forget about having a bass, there weren't any to be found. You had to go in a club, they used to own the equipment. So as kids we couldn't go in nightclubs.

I was born in 1964, so all that generation we started with an acoustic guitar. I remember talking to my older brother and we got a guitar at Christmas time, and some of the elders taught us how to play—they knew a few chords and taught us. That gave us a start. Most of what we were playing was traditional Cameroonian music, rhythmic music for weddings, births, baptism and things like that. So that's how I learned, there was no conservatory or music school. You had to teach yourself. Now it is better because you can go on the Internet and find things. But we were all self taught, along with a few chords from the elders and the heritage they gave us—that was it.

AAJ: Did you find yourself drawn to the bass even though you didn't have one, or did the interest in bass come later?

EM: I think it came a little bit later, but you know now in Cameroon there are two things the younger generation are interested in—it's bass and soccer... (we both laugh) and of course having fun with your girlfriend, and what ever else you can do. But if you want to do something else besides going to school and learning your classes, you can go and see a movie, but at the time—you know, television came to Cameroon in 1982! So until 1982 we didn't know about TV.

I left earlier, I left in 1978, and the first time I saw a TV was in France when I came here in 1978. So when you wanted to have fun with your girlfriend you would go to a movie, but otherwise you would play football or go to a football match, or if you had a guitar—that was it for the young, soccer and trying to play music.

So I knew there were some older guys who were great bass players, but most of them were living in France. We used to receive some recordings from them, even traditional African music recorded in France. We were amazed by the strength of their playing, it was like wow! Who is this bassist? How can he play like that? Then we would see, oh, he's a guy from Cameroon! They knew about what was happening in the United States, like the great Motown players like James Jamerson, and the Stax players. So that's how we learned from them. So we couldn't read music, and there was no formal instruction, so we had to teach ourselves by listening to the LP or whatever it was. We tried to copy the sound with our own fingering and sound like our heroes. That's how we learned, and it gave us a lot of energy.

Especially in Cameroon there are a lot of bass players, most are living in France, and now we are like heroes. Each of us has got a team of supporters in Cameroon, and they love us because we are from the same country. And they love us, they know every single note we are playing. As soon as a CD comes out, they've got it from the Internet and they are trying to do what we did. They copy us, and try to sound like us. That creates a lot of energy and excitement for bass playing in Cameroon. They say, if you want to put together an orchestra, get a bassist from Cameroon, a drummer from West Senegal or Ivory Coast, get a guitarist from Congo or Zaire. So each part of Africa is renowned for its favorite instruments. (Laughing) And for the bass, it's Cameroon.

AAJ: So Cameroon is the bass capital of the world.

EM: Definitely, no doubt about it. Not because of us, but the kids coming up. Every time I go back, which is usually two or three times a year, I can see them growing and growing musically. And playing things that make you go wow! Where did you learn that here in Cameroon? "Oh you know, I took it from you, you know, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten." Because now there is the Internet, so they are learning and practicing, and now with the Internet they can see what the bass players are doing. In my time, we couldn't see what they were doing. So anyway, bass playing is really a very big movement in Cameroon.


AAJ: When you go to Cameroon, do you also tour, or do you just go to see family and friends?

EM: I tour sometimes with my own band, and of course around Christmas time it is like summer there, so I love to go on vacation and take my family from France and visit the family there. I like to go into the forest and try and see the Pygmies and learn some new rhythms from them. There are still a lot of huge forests and a lot of things to learn in Central Africa, like the Pygmies playing these kinds of drums you've never seen.

And I've got my son who is a bassist too, Swaeli Mbappe, and I've been taking him since he was 8 years old, to learn his Arfican roots, because his mother is French. So he's a bassist today, playing upright bass, and bass guitar, and it's great for him. He learned to play here in France with all the great music schools, classical and whatever, and then see the kids there and how they learned. So he got to see a bit of how his dad learned to play bass. So he loves going there, every Christmas he says, "Hey dad, we gotta go to Cameroon, I've gotta learn some more rhythm." He's very excited to go there often, and of course the family is a very important part of it.

AAJ: When he was growing up, did you speak Douala with him, or did he grow up only with French?

EM: Actually French since he was born here, but he can speak some Douala, but he's not fluent. His mom speaks French to him and I'm on tour all the time, so since he was a baby he heard mostly French. But he can understand it, and he speaks some.
About Etienne Mbappe
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