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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.

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.

AAJ: I've heard Cameroon is quite beautiful with the mountains and the coast line, you got it all.

EM: They call it little Africa,—we have the savannah, the forest, the mountains, you know all the beautiful landscapes you can see around Africa, you can find them in Cameroon. Up North it isn't as densely populated, there's a lot of space, but it's pretty hot. So you've got that desert climate, the South is pretty humid with the deep forest. I'm from the South, Douala, in the summer months in Central Africa it is pouring rain, starting in September it is beautiful. In Cameroon you can swim, you can go biking in the mountains, there's so much to do.

Gloves

AAJ: There's one thing I should ask you because a lot of people are curious, what's the story behind why you wear silk gloves when you play?

EM: (Laughing) Oh, this is a very long story, and today I'm telling you, I read some things about these gloves that make me smile. Actually I was just trying to find my own way, and I don't really know why, but once I tried some gloves on. It was more of a joke, you know, like "Hey, I can play with gloves on." Those gloves were made of wool, and with wool, after two songs they are wore through and ruined. So that was just for a joke, but I noticed that it created a really special sound. It takes off the fret noise, and that pretty interesting when you are a studio musician.

You know, sometimes you are playing a solo on bass and you can hear the "chup, chup" noise of the frets, and the gloves take that off. Also it give the bass a really warm sound, it makes it smoother, and bigger. So having those gloves gave me my own sound, and it was like "wow." It's thick! And then I experienced when I took the right hand glove off, it sounded like I was playing with a pick. So that's the difference. When you are used to this big sound, this hot sound, and you take the gloves off—it sound like "ding, ding ding" like playing with a pick.

So I prefer playing with gloves and I also notices it keeps my strings bright. If I'm the only one playing my bass, then I only change my strings every four months or so, because are always bright and sound lively. Without gloves you get sweat on your strings and that makes them sound dull. So my wife and I were discussing it, and she said, "Why don't you try silk gloves?" I'd never heard of a silk glove, and then I tried a silk glove on, and found my size. So I learned to play with gloves, and loved the sound, and I even loved the look—and I've been playing with gloves for more than twenty years now.

AAJ: How long does a pair of silk gloves last for you?

EM: It really depends of what kind of music you are playing. If you're just backing a singer, that's one thing, but with John McLaughlin then it's every two shows, because you're on fire every time. Sometimes they only last for one show, because with John you're working all the time, you know those licks "dickity, dickity, dickity." So in general they last two shows with John, and three or four shows when backing a singer. Funny story, now I'm endorsed by the company that produces the gloves. They heard about my story of playing with gloves. They had some endorsements with prominent alpine skiers, and their catalog they have photos of these ski champions, and now there is also a photo of me with my bass!

Joe Zawinul

AAJ: Etienne I also want to ask you how you came to know and play with Joe Zawinul.

EM: Of course I was a Weather Report fan, Joes's band with Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter—and I'm still a fan of Jaco Pastorius. Funny enough, remember you were talking before about one of your favorite African singers, Salif Keita, and I did a tour with him in the early 90s in the States, I don't remember all the dates, but Los Angeles, San Francisco and we had Carlos Santana on guitar. He did some songs with us and Salif would let him do some great solos.

You know, even in Africa we knew about Santana, those great songs like "Samba Pa Ti," "Europa." So wow, having Santana playing next to me! The first show of my life was when I was in high school, and I opened the show playing "Samba Pa Ti" from Santana—that was in the gymnasium of the school. And now, all of the sudden Santana is with me on stage, and later I told him the story. He said, "No, you're kidding!" So that's how I got to know Santana.

So anyway, Salif Keita was on the Island Records label in London, and they wanted Joe Zawinul to produce his next album, and have Santana do some songs. By this time I was friends with Salif and playing in his band. So Joe Zawinul came to Paris to produce this album, Amen and we had two weeks of rehearsals with the band before getting into the studio. So when Salif was a little bit late, we would play some Weather Report songs with Joe.

AAJ: So you were a fan and knew all his music.

EM: So just teasing him I would play the opening lines of his songs (Etienne sings the bass lines) and Joe say, "You know that!?!" And I told him of course I know that. And on drums was the great Paco Sery, so the three of us were jamming. So that's how I got to know Joe, spending a month and a half with him in Paris.

So after jamming with him on all those Weather Report songs, I told him, you know Joe, I'm really fond of Weather Report, I wish I could play with you and Weather Report. Joe said, "Well, you already passed your audition." That's what he said to me. I said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "If there's something going on I'll call you—that's what I mean." And then like ten years later he called me! [Imitating Joe Zawinul] "Hey Etienne, this is Joe Zawinul, do you remember me?" And I said of course. "So you wanna join my band?" I said are you kidding. "No I'm not kidding." I said, well I'm doing some stuff right now, just give me ... And he said, "I'll give you 24 hours!" Then after hanging up I called him right back and said, "I'll manage it, I'm in your band, when should I be there?" Then two or three weeks later I was on the road with him.

AAJ: So you stayed with Joe Zawinul for three years, that's like going to music school for three years!

EM: Playing with him was like a dream come true, and it's the same playing with John McLaughlin now, they are living legends, part of jazz history. They wrote part of jazz history. You know, Joe was a great story teller, he would talk about Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. 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, you know, that period when he came to the States and was breaking into the business and playing with all those great names like Miles and Dinah Washington, he was a part of that. So being in Joe Zawinul's band made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

John McLaughlin

AAJ: What about John McLaughlin, had did that come about?

EM: I was of course familiar with John through his work, like Mahavishnu, Shakti, and of course various recordings. In France John was REALLY big, you would see him on primetime TV shows like a pop star, that was John by the 80s and 90s. Of course for me a living legend. I met him once in the South of France in Nice, I was playing with Joe at a festival and he came to say hello. He said "Hi guys, how's it going." And John speaks good French. So discreetly, he said, "I want you to give me your number. I don't want Joe to freak out." That's what he said. That was around 2000 or 2001, and he called me eight years later.

I was in the States at the NAMM show in Los Angeles, it was January. So my phone was ringing and I answer and it's John speaking in French: "Hey Etienne, it's John McLaughlin, how are you doing? You're in the States." So I ask, "How do you know I'm in the States." "You're at the NAMM show, ja di di, ja da da—you posted that on your website. So I don't want to run up your phone bill, so how about joining my band?" I said, "You gotta be kidding me! When?" He says, "In April." So I said, well I got some shootings to do. He says, "It's April next year." So I said, I don't even have to think about it, YES, YES, YES!

AAJ: He's great because he's not a music snob, he loves music and is open to many things.

EM: John has become a great friend, we can really talk. Of course he has that living legend background and he has so many experiences to share, like about Mahavishnu and how he got into the Indian vibe, how he learned with Ravi Shankar—so being in a band with him is a true blessing, and it makes you humble. It's like, do what you have to do, do it right, and have fun—share some love, give some love.

That's the message, play music, make people happy, try and be yourself, be happy, believe in your dreams. Go through and keep on doing it, realize your dreams, that's the message. It's about love, it's all about love. You're surrounded by love, be humble and do what you gotta do, that's about it. I heard that from those elders, and they wrote the history of jazz. Playing with them is just a blessing, knowing them is just a blessing, and being in a band and the paths we cross, it's just a blessing.

Ray Charles

AAJ: You've had so many blessing, like you got to meet Ray Charles!

EM: That was a funny story too. I did some session work with him, he was doing an album of crooner songs, covering people like Charles Aznavour and Frank Sinatra and he came to France to do three or four songs. So I got a call, "What are you doing?" I'm at home, so I say, what do you mean what am I doing? "In the next couple of hours? There's a recording session tonight, it's not far from you, and it's with Ray Charles." I'm like, you gotta be kidding me! So when I came into the studio, it was surreal, like, am I really here? I'm here with this genius, am I really here. You just can't believe it, but believe it or not, I didn't have a camera to take a picture with him. So I actually played for a couple of hours in the studio with Ray Charles!

The Ringers Experience

AAJ: I also wanted to ask you about the tour with the Ringers you just finished, and get your impressions on that.

EM: I remember I was on tour in the States and I went to the House of Blues and I heard Jimmy Herring, and I was like, wow! Who is this guy! So I got on my phone and called a friend, Bill Evans, a great saxophonist, and I said, I'm here in the States and playing a gig and there's this guys on the same bill, Jimmy Herring, and he's just amazing!

So I had a great time afterwards talking with Jimmy, and I told him I love his playing so much. So later when he was recording his CD and Jimmy asked the head of his label, Abstract Logix, to get in touch with me. And they invited me to come over and do some tracks on his album. I knew Wayne Krantz through some mutual friends in New York, and of course I knew Mike Landau from all the amazing session work he has done and a bit of his solo work too.

So everybody emailed the others some possible songs for the Ringers tour. Then we meet and had two days to rehearse. I was wondering, what's it going to be like playing with three guitar players? But there was a lot of respect and just music. We had a great time touring and playing each others songs together. I hope we continue this experience, because I loved it. The chemistry was great, and it was great to play with Keith Carlock on drums. Keith is a special drummer, he has that certain "something." He's got something like that New Orleans groove with a lot of rim shots, "dacady dacydey dack"—and he grooves like hell! It just clicked, like we had been playing together for many years. I brought some Africa songs, and I showed him the groove and he just got it right away.

Photo: YouTube screen capture with effects by A.Bryson

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