Planted high atop a siege of multi-talented and multi-genre bassists is Etienne Mbappé, who showcases an amazing array of voices on his instrument, and a colorful palate of ideas within his compositional skills as well. Lyrical lines, breathtaking rhythmic virtuosity, and masterful grooving seem to come natural to this native-born African who now resides in France.
Forgive the cliché, but this is one seriously “musical” player. He can lay way back on an enchanting rhythm from his homeland and totally draw you in, and follow that by scatting, à la Richard Bona style, a nothing less than brilliant solo that easily goes beyond the pure “technique” this bassist employs (which by the way rests at a very high level). He’s a player’s player in every sense of the word, and represents another of so many greats that have showed us that this instrument is truly still in its’ infant stages.
Having already done such stellar gigs as the Zawinal Syndicate, and Steps Ahead, two bands that have graced some of the finest bassists’ of our day, lets us know that this man’s voice has been heard, and appreciated, and after talking with him I get every indication that there’s still much more to come.
[Jake] You’re originally from Cameroon Africa, which I understand during that period as a player you were basically self-taught. What type of musical studies did you pursue after your move to France?
[Etienne] Yes, I was born in Cameroon (central Africa) in 1964, in the beautiful city of Douala. I started to play the guitar at the age of 11, and I was self-taught. I came to France in 1978, at the age of 14, where I studied classical guitar for 4 years, and classical upright (contrabass) for 3 years. That pretty much covers my musical studies. I never took any lessons on the electric bass.
[Jake] You brought with you, just as Richard Bona did, your wealth of African rhythms such as the Makossa, Bolobo, and Sekele. Are these early rhythmic influences still a vital part of your approach as a player today?
[Etienne] Absolutely. Cameroonian traditional music is based on rhythm. There’s more rhythm than harmony in general in African music. So, as I grew up down there, all those beautiful rhythms such as the Bikutsi, the Mangambeu, the Assiko, the Mbaya, the Makossa, the Bolobo, etc… All of them were a large part of my musical environment, and of course, totally influenced my way of thinking and approaching not only the bass or any other instrument, but the music as well.
[Jake] As many other great bassists’ have, you played with the Zawinal Syndicate for a period of time. How did that experience, as well as working with Joe, impact your musical direction at that time?
[Etienne] Playing for almost 2 years in the “ZAWINUL SYNDICATE” was a really great experience. Being on the road and playing the” best Jazz festivals in the world”, eating “the best food”, sleeping in “the best hotels” and being apart of “the best band in the world” (as he used to say), was one of the “best things” (now it’s me saying it) that happened in my career. I will always remember the challenge I had to go through with him sending me to the microphone to sing and create the lyrics of a song that we hadn’t practiced before… Everything was so spontaneous… and that required a lot of concentration… That’s JOE ZAWINUL… (R.I.P.)
[Jake] I also understand that your meeting with Carlos Santana along time ago had a huge impact on you as well. Could you tell me about that meeting?
[Etienne] I was 13 years old when I played my first concert. I was playing guitar in a school gymnasium in Douala Cameroon packed with students, and we opened the show with “SAMBA PA TI,” the great instrumental theme by Carlos Santana. Funny thing was I played it without ever listening to the record. Some older “brothers” in the school just sang me this theme and taught the band how to play it in the “African oral transmission” way. Some days after this show, everyone was calling me Santana in the schoolyard… so can you imagine by the 90’s, doing a U.S. tour with Malian great singer SALIF KEITA, and sharing the stage for some shows with the great, and the real CARLOS SANTANA as a “special guest” was amazing. I still have some pictures of that period. I was just like a kid standing by my hero. I’ve cried tears of happiness many times thinking about that.
[Jake] As far as improvisation goes, you have a very strong and identifiable voice on your instrument. What in your opinion are the key elements that helped you develop that voice?
[Etienne] I am a very instinctive bass player; I ‘m searching all the time. I hate to be locked into “clichés”… So when it comes to improvisation, I just let myself go like an explorer, with my ears, my heart, and my soul as a guide, so I can see colors, and feel some vibes. The rhythm is always there, and becomes a strong element that also helps to keep me exploring. Of course I’ve got my “licks”, like everyone else, but I am definitely not the kind of player who knows every scale that goes on every chord. But I do admire the players that know this inside and out.
[Jake] Could you tell me who is involved with your band SuLaTake, and what your plans are for the band?
[Etienne] “SU LA TAKE” (pronounced Také like o.k.) means “the end of suffering”…
My band is a 5 piece band, with some young and very talented French musicians like: Cate PETIT on backing vocals, Cedric BAUD on guitar, Clément JANINET on violin, John GRANDCAMP on drums, and myself on bass and lead vocals. I occasionally use a sax player, and presently I’m thinking about an accordion player. I want to try the contrast I think this instrument will create when played within the context of some African grooves…
There’s a new CD called “SU LA TAKE” by the band coming out the middle of April (14th in France) and, there’s a tour planned that you can check on as well at www.etiennembappe.com. We would love to have the opportunity to bring this music to the U.S.A.
[Jake] On your CD Misiya, which we reviewed in this issue, you’ve shown your compositional skills to be equally as strong as your playing. How do you approach putting together your songs?
[Etienne] Most of the time I’m composing either on a bass or on the guitar (I don’t play piano). So, the music always comes to me like a melody, and then I add the lyrics after the music is done. It’s different composing on bass as opposed to guitar — the approach is really different. People who know me well can hear the difference as far as what approach I used. I love sparse songs that just have a little percussion and 1, 2, or 3 bass tracks for example. And then a guitar playing just the melody and the chords are done by one of the bass tracks. I also enjoy writing for strings… check out the new CD.
[Jake] You’ve mentioned that some of your earlier influences were Jaco, Marcus Miller, Gary Willis, and Victor Wooten. What, or whom have you been listening to recently that has continued to inspire you as well?
[Etienne] Actually, my earlier influences were Cameroonian bass players such as JEAN DIKOTO MANDENGUE, VIC EDIMO, ALADJI TOURE, MANFRED LONG, RIDO BAYONNE and BOB EDJANGUE (I guess you don’t know any of them)… but they are the root of all the great bass players from Cameroon… they made this style of bass playing a tradition. Of course I love all of those you mentioned in your question. There are also a lot of very young and talented musicians from all over the world. All of them are an inspiration to me, and they’re teaching me every day without knowing it—and that’s the magic of life… that’s the way I like it. Remember… “African Oral transmission”
You can learn more about Etienne by going to, Behind the Notes with Joe Darcy