SA Bassists – An Interview with Cesare Cassarino by Martin Simpson
For this month’s interview, we’ll stay in JHB just a little while longer so we can speak to extremely talented, bassist extraordinaire, Cesare Cassarino. Cesare is the bass instructor at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. He’s another one of South Africa’s rising bass talents. This is what he told me in June this year.
What are your earliest musical memories, Cesare?
I grew up in an Italian household filled with the musical traditions of Alpine Choral music, Classic show tunes and Opera. My mom was an Art student in the early seventies and my parents had loads of parties, so I absorbed the Disco, Pop and Psychedelic music of the era. Unfortunately, I didn’t have very high standards, and at the age of 5 I loved to sing along with the soundtrack to Grease and Summer Holiday! Ouch! I did manage to redeem myself at age 11. That’s when I was introduced to Punk Rock music: Stiff Little Fingers, UK Subs, Dead Kennedys, and GBH. I loved it ‘cause adults hated it and the lyrical content went beyond ‘Baby I Love You”, and “Ooh Yeah”. These guys were pissed off.
Tell us about the local music scene at the time.
During the 80s, South Africa was in a dark night of the soul. Society was constricted on all levels as a result of cultural sanctions and Apartheid legislation. The government banned any art, music or cinema that was considered liberal. People were angry with that and it was musically inspiring. On the positive side, the pigeonholes that throttle contemporary music were not in place. Record companies were taking more chances and music was not as stylistically stunted like it is today.
Who were the bass players that you were checking out?
As a youth, I was physically imposing and would get into clubs from around the age of 13. My friends were all much older and they introduced me to beer and good music! I would go to Jameson’s in Commissioner street, Johannesburg, which was a mixed race club and very liberal. I would be in the front row checking out ‘Mac” Mackenzie of the Genuines, Ian Cohen of Bright Blue and the late Gito Baloi, who’s playing inspired me to buy my first bass.
The radio was bursting with traditional music and the bass playing was unique. A lot of the traditional guys of that era were playing up high on the neck with a harsh plectrum tone. Coming up with these repetitive, percussive, rudimentary melodic patterns that inspired those on the Juluka tracks, Zodwa, Sonqoba and Umfazi Omdala.
Did you study formally?
I studied in order to dodge the army. I weaseled my way into the Pretoria Tech Light Music program in 1991. There was nothing light about it though. It was Bebop or death and I think that was the first time that I was exposed to Jazz and I was definitely not prepared.
Johnny Fourie became a mentor and encouraged me to explore harmony. He also got me to focus on the real function of bass. I remember him telling me to “stop that tapping shit and play piano instead” after I played him my shaky solo bass version of Stolen Moments. He had a way of getting to the point! I recall that I was in one of his ensembles with several rock guitarists and every week one or two of them would drop out. Eventually there was only myself, a drummer and Johnny left. During that time, he arranged a chord melody for me of Blue in Green (to play on bass). He added many of his own voicings and showed me walking bass concepts. I started to get a glimpse of the depth of possibilities He opened up my mind and was always very supportive. I recall him saying that if he were my age he would probably be playing Metal instead of Jazz! This was a revelation to me.
Huh? Electric Jazz?
Around the same time I started listening to Jeff Berlin and got into the idea of playing Jazz on electric bass. His chordal playing and Bebop solos became the basis of my own playing and I spent the rest of my studies trying to create that sound on bass. At the time, Jazz was a little more stylistically open. Electric bass was tolerated on straight-ahead gigs because of the Fusion hangover from the 80s.
No. My tastes vary. I check out new stuff all the time. That would apply to playing different styles too. I can’t see how one’s interest in music can be contained in one style. It seems impossible to me. Repressed? Stunted? For example, my interest in reggae led me on a journey through Jungle and Drum n Bass. I soon realized there is also a connection between D & B and Brazilian music. That led me to Cuban music; so one style can organically lead to another. I want to understand different styles and interpret them with some kind of authenticity. Ideally, I would like to maintain personality while doing this so as not to churn out the “session-guy” licks.
…and…the wolf at the door?
During my studies I started taking all the gigs that came my way. I spent many years backing artists like Steve Hofmeyr, Valiant Swart, Mel Botes, Manuel Escorcio, Richard van der Westhuizen, Lochner de Kok, Anton Goosen… the list goes on and on. Around 1996 I somehow wound up on a support slot on ZZ-top’s SA Tour in the band Jack Hammer.
Before leaving Pretoria, I took a detour into television for a year or so. I was mixing sports programs, swinging boom in documentaries and eventually starred in John Barker’s Music Mockumentary, “Blu Cheez”. That film served to take the piss out of Rock n Roll bands. It also confused the crap out of people who knew me as a real-life bass player. It was a kind of Reality TV ‘Spinal Tap’. It was hard to tell if we were acting or not. We played ourselves and the lines of reality were blurred. I think the humor was lost on a lot of people who really ended up buying into it.
Through that experience, I kept only one choice Afrikaans gig with artist Riku Latti. He was a very liberal bandleader and the band had cart blanche in the creative domain. I contributed to the arrangements and was afforded solos. It was a band in the true sense of the word. After a year or two of part-time gigging and Television work, I was back hustling small gigs.
Johannesburg was good to me and I spent the next ten years playing casual jazz gigs on 4-string electric for a living. It was a precarious position to be in and I eventually succumbed to the pressure from bandleaders, switching to double bass. The segue was made easier by initially playing electric upright, but that couldn’t satisfy for long and I was soon playing acoustic double bass 4 nights a week.
Do you favor upright or electric?
I am more proficient on electric and that is a good reason to play more upright. I do enjoy upright but I was kind of forced into it. It has positively affected my electric playing and vastly improved my electric chops. It has pushed me to listen more as a result of being less technically adept…gotta come up with stronger musical ideas, ‘cause I can’t shred on the Doghouse! I enjoy getting away with fewer notes on upright, and I have become more conscious of spaces and choose collaborators that are tuned into this.
I still maintain a couple of gigs that allow me to play my electric bass. I have been playing with Gang of Instrumentals (or G.I. as they are known to fans) for around three years now. I have enjoyed the opportunity to play in front of massive audiences. G.I. singers Mandla N and Tumi Masemola are bona fide celebrities as a result of their TV show, City Se’sla. This means the band almost exclusively plays larger venues and so I get a chance to play from a different angle. The contrasts between that and my usual jazz gigs are vast. I find that very stimulating. I did a short tour to Cape Town a few years ago on guitar with the Industrial band Battery 9. I managed somehow, to get booked on a series of Cocktail and background gigs on the same tour. I was playing packed clubs at night on heavily detuned guitar to kids in latex and Jazz standards in coffee shops during the day. What a trip! I get to do that kind of thing now and then and I love the perspective it gives me. I get a rush out of those extremes.
Could you elaborate?
A new gig often means new music, new musicians and new types of audiences. It’s nice to have something stylistically different after that to pull me back into my own reality- like a bungee rope.
Do you have G.A.S.?
I pursued tone relentlessly to the point where I would change pickups and electronics on a weekly basis. From gig to gig I would play different strings, use different instruments and amplifiers. Eventually found strings, came to terms with the flaws of my instruments and settled on a good amp. The tech talk and flashy lights can bamboozle one. I think when it comes to gear less is more. No piece of equipment will compensate for crap technique. There are amps I prefer and strings I avoid, but a good D.I. is always necessary. After that, the sound comes from the mind and hands. Although I have a choice rig, I only use it on smaller gigs, preferring to travel light. G.I. doesn’t travel with a tech or do sound checks. On festivals, I prefer to make sure the monitors are sounding good rather than setting up my rig and messing with cables.
I have a love/hate relationship with efx. Just like slapping chops, it is rare that I get to utilize them in musical context. That is not say that I haven’t tried. I have experimented with distortions, filters, time-based effects and midi for a number of years. I don’t care for true-bypass, and blending effects. I love electronic music and have spent years trying to find a synth bass tone for bass guitar. I have found that it is best achieved with analog square wave distortion, analog octave pedals and cheap analog filter pedals. On the new G.I. album I got to lay down some synth tracks on “My baby “. There is a dance element to that music, and so I can get away with some gadgets here and there but it really is just icing on the cake. Some guys make it work all the time, but the music needs to be written around the technique or effect.
Do you think recent advances in technology have helped improve the quality of music?
Not necessarily. People played fantastic music before electricity.
So you don’t use computers to make music?
Yes I do. I enjoy the convenience.
What obvious changes has the Internet brought to the business?
Record companies are taking a beating from the Internet. Musicians can’t sit back and rely on record sales and royalties as much as in the past. Touring and selling merchandise has become a necessity.
Is there any balance in your life?
The music business is rough on the body and there is a lot of waiting around to be done. Usually somewhere that doesn’t have fresh food, clean drinking water or a place to rest. Marriages take strain, health is neglected, and people are stooping low to get the glory. As hunter S. Thompson is so often misquoted, the music business “ … is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs”. There is also a negative side.
How do you feel about teaching?
I generally find it rewarding.
What makes the gig worth it?- In the long run?
I use a common musician filtering system for judging the desirability of a gig. There are 3 factors involved. The music, the money and the hang. Any gig should meet at least two of these important criteria – preferably three. In short, the ideal gig is musically satisfying, lucrative and a pleasant get together. It is no use earning top money whilst secretly wanting to off yourself (or someone else!) because the musical director is a #%*! One should also not have to move back in with your mother so you can afford to join your favorite nose flute ensemble. I have my own self-preservation in mind when taking on a gig. When I was younger I would do anything and everything, often running myself into the ground after weekends of six different gigs in a row. Things have changed. I can’t say that I am driven by the search for glory and I have stylistic preferences. I actually don’t like being in the limelight and shy away from anything that takes my focus away from my family. This can be bad for one’s bank account but I have been fortunate.
And lastly, what do you get up to when you’re taking a well-deserved break from music?
Aah…that one’s easy. I just avoid anything to do with work.