“I didn’t face many obstacles – my black musician friend faced the obstacles. I remember when I was working in Johnny Fourie’s band, Duke Makazi who played incredible tenor sax, often didn’t arrive at the gig because he was arrested as they thought he had stolen his saxophone.”
INTERVIEW: RUAN SCOTT
PHOTOGRAPHY: REZA KHOTA
What is your earliest memory of being exposed to music and when did you realize you wanted to do this for a living and make your own compositions?
My mother took me to the Ballet when I was eight years old. It was Swan Lake with music by Tchaikovsky. I remember the violin melody in the 4th movement pierced me and at that moment I wanted to play music.
What was your initial interest in the bass guitar and which other instruments do you play?
My parents were not interested in me becoming a musician. My father was an Italian chef and wanted me to be a cook. I played piano whenever I found one but it was at Pretoria Boys High school that I enrolled for music as a subject without my parents’ consent and got the teacher to explain to my parents that I had a very good ear for music. I studied classical piano, loved Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as Led Zeppelin, The Police, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. When I was 16 I heard Weather Report and the bassist Jaco Pastorious for the first time. I had the same experience when I heard Jaco play as I did when I heard Swan Lake, and convinced my mother to buy me a R60 Epiphone bass. I then taught myself how to play it.
You were a musician during the turbulent years of south africa in the 80s. What were some of the obstacles you faced in a predominantly black music scene?
I didn’t face many obstacles – my black musician friend faced the obstacles. I remember when I was working in Johnny Fourie’s band, Duke Makazi who played incredible tenor sax, often didn’t arrive at the gig because he was arrested as they thought he had stolen his saxophone.
Can you recall some of your fondest memories during those years?
The eighties were bad times in our history but we managed to play original music at least three times a week around Jo’burg, I had a regular gig with my band Abstractions every Thursday night downtown at a place called Jamesons. Here we would listen to the Jazz Pioneers play, all the way to the Afrikaans rock scene that protested against the National Party and bands like the Cherry Faced Lurchers that were my neighbors in Yeoville. I would practice 10 hours during the day and they would party next door. Then there was Kippies, a fantastic club outside the Market Theatre, that’s before they made it bigger, and the Jam sessions in Yeoville at a club called Rumours. I also had a regular midnight gig every Friday where I played a solo bass session at a place in Berea called the Midnight Sun. There were many places to play. Even the Market theatre had jazz concerts every Saturday afternoon in the main auditorium. It was a very creative time.
Mombelli is a very interseting surname. Its sounds african but it seems it’s italian. Where does your family originally come from?
My father is Italian, came to South Africa when he was 17 and I was a mistake. He is back in Europe. Strangely I also left home when I was 17.
Your first band was called ‘abstractions’ in 1987. What do you feel has led to the development of your particular sound since then?
I was totally (and still am) in love with the ECM sound. Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner, Egberto Gismonti etc. Besides being a self-taught bassist, I also am a self-taught composer. I used to always want to play music with that ECM sound and I used to transcribe the music of ECM from my LPs to imitate the sound. So my early compositions all have that sound. My band Abstractions was also all about that sound. Besides learning music from listening and transcribing I used to go into the surrounding forests at Pretoria Boys High in the breaks when everyone else went off to play soccer. I loved to listen to the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves, the insects and the orchestration of birds. I was fascinated by the natural reverb that nature has and I have always tried to add that to my playing. I learnt a lot about composing music from these listening sessions. Thirty years later I have finally come to a point where I don’t try and compose music to imitate any sound. I just compose what comes out of me and I feel I have arrived at Carlo Mombelli. Besides my compositions I want my bass playing to have a earthy raw feel but at the same time I want to use it as my brush to paint sound.
A lot of your album covers feature fine art paintings on them, two of wich were done by norman catherine. How do you go about finding an image for the album covers and how did the collaboration with norman happen?
I have always loved art. My wife Sandra introduced me to the works of the great masters and we have travelled the world visiting all the great art galleries. I find that art like music tells a story and it really has influenced and inspired my compositions. My entire recording called Bats in the Belfry is inspired by one painting, by Norman Catherine, I met him many years ago when I was asked to compose music for a project about Fook Island, the imaginary place. I wrote a piece called The Procession March of King Ferd the Third and we have been friends ever since. I also own a few of his works, which makes my home very colorful.
You have travelled the world as a musician playing at some major events with a variety of artists. Which one of these events would you see as the pinnacle of your career so far?
The most exciting festival that I played at was the Moers festival in Germany. Terje Rypdal played before us and Bill Frisell after us. The sound was amazing, it was packed and the audience went crazy for our band ‘The Prisoners of Strange’. Then off course recording with Egberto Gismonti was a magical moment for me.
Education in music is something close to your heart, where are you teaching at the moment?
I teach at Wits University in Johannesburg and I love it. I never studied how to teach. It was natural for me to teach myself and through the years of experience it’s good to share this. I started teaching at the Richard Strauss conservatoire in Munich, Germany in 1998 and since then I have given workshops and taught all over the world including Berklee College of music in the USA, and in Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and many more. I also wrote a bass book which was released internationally by Hal Leonard.
‘Rights of spring’ from the album ‘i stared into my head’ is a very erratic song reminiscent of african story telling culture and interpretive dancing, while ‘down the gutter pipe’ from your 2008 album ‘theory’ reminds me of traditional islamic prayer sounds. What allows a certain type of culture to influence your compositions?
I have really traveled and seen amazing places, and experienced ancient traditions. I have been on St. Peters Square in the Vatican in Rome where I was blessed by the Pope, I have been to Jerusalem and have visited the Wailing Wall, a holy place to the Jews, as well as the Dome of the Rock, holy to the Muslims. I have traveled up the Himalayas with my wife and have visited the ancient Buddhist monasteries; I have been to Varanasi in India, a 5000-year-old city on the banks of the Ganges River and a holy place for the Hindus. So off course besides Africa, all of these places have inspired my music. And I build instruments that help me to create sounds that I want to hear.
How do you approach the compositions within your songs, do you have some sort of formula or where do you gather your inspiration from?
My compositions do not start off as compositions. They develop from improvisations that come from inspirations and stories. Once I have the sketch, the seed, then I can water it and develop it into the composition.
Your latest album ‘stories’, as the name suggests, is an intimate account of some incidents and events in your life. Could you share some of the highlights with us?
This last album is quite a personal one, as it really has come out of events that have happened. For example, my daughter was in a terrible car accident where she lost her friend and we nearly lost her. It was on the road past Nieu-Bethesda. I wrote a piece for that and a composition called Salvation as a thank you that she is still with us. The Little window in the Kitchen is about my memory of sitting in the hotel dining room as a boy and seeing my father check up on us through the little round window in the door. I recorded his voice off my answering machine where he says he loves me. Song for Sandra is for my wife of 34 years and it’s still as if we are on honeymoon. So each piece has a meaning for me.
‘Stories’ was released on vinyl in conjunction with the swiss arts council and three independent local record labels. What led to the vinyl project and do you feel that independent releases such as this are still viable in today’s music market?
The music I make is really for a specialized market and it is at my gigs that I sell my music. The return of the vinyl is starting to gather momentum and I want to be there as it takes off. My first serious project Abstractions was recorded and released on Vinyl by Shifty records in 1986 so its nice to go back to Vinyl. This Stories production was recorded with vintage mics from the 40s and mastered on tape machines, hence the hiss on the CD, so its perfect for the Vinyl format.
INFO : www.carlomombelli.com
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