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Interview Carlo Mombelli


My daughter has something unique with her compositions. She didn't study composition but has been nurtured by me. It is rock music but she plays piano with these ostinato lines that are going all the time. She doesn't play chords. Her hands are moving in arpeggiated waves for the entire gig. And then she has her band playing all these counterpoint melodies, with these rock drum rhythms. It is unique and it will be difficult as first for people to understand and for it to take off. She performs as Maria Mombelli and the Belibuttons. My other daughter works in London a gaming artist for the company, “Secret Police” in London. She draws all the characters and graphics for games. They are launching a game called Dragon Watch in the near future it is a mobile game.

I am re-releasing bats on the belfry on vinyl. It has that vinyl sound. It was recorded on these great microphones in the Bayerischen Rundfunk on DAT cassette and it wasn't mixed. We ran out of copies of that CD and they are all gone. It would be nice to have it out on vinyl with that cover.

I wasn't thinking anything when I wrote “Me the Mango Picker”. It has 4 chords and lyrics I wrote it when I was still living in Germany and I was talking about SA and the longing for coming home and felt that the Mango's were ripe. It was a certain time. And I felt that me being the mango picker I need to go home and pick the mangoes. It was a really positive song. I recorded it in Europe and then recorded it here with Siya singing it. She was still a student at TUT. She was very young and came and sung it. Tutu Puaone recorded it for her album. Nicky Schrire recorded it in New York. Deborah Tanguy the French singer from Paris recorded the song.

With Mbuso Khoza he has got such a different kind of feeling with music and on songs such as Picasso's Dove which is a song about peace and he just sings. Every gig it could be a different melody or in a different place and he is improvising every gig.

Prisoners of Strange died in Grahamstown with Marcus, Siya and Justin. I moved on from that. We did our last gig in Grahamstown and I said okay. It fell to pieces we had a few personality clashes.

And then I started Stories and I had that running in Europe since 2010. I went every year to play with the band Dale the drummer from Serbia and he lives in Berlin and a pianist Daniel Bezotti and I added Mbuso to that project, after I first heard him at the jam session at the Bassline.

I wanted to continue the Stories project in South Africa I started a new band here and kept that band there. And then I started a band with Kyle, Kesivan and Mbuso. Then Kesivan went to the Berkeley College of Music. It was a story and at the end the audience would rapture or they were in dead silence because the energy of the concept of this band was spiritual and I am always trying to find the spiritual element in music. We went into studio and recorded “I pressed my spine to the ground”. It is intense.

I had recorded this church bell when I was staying in the Alps. I was like a nomad for a week recording music. There was nothing up there. I found a place with a piano and there was a cheese farm close by and we took lots of wine up with us. We hear this bell in the distance and I recorded it and in the session I played this on the headphones and we started improvising on the bells. And there was a poem I wrote called “I pressed my spine to the ground” which Brenda Sisane recited. When you are on your back and the world seems to dark and bleak it is only in those moments when the stars shine the brightest. Only then can you see eternity.

Another poem I wrote 15 years ago called “2000 years of nutcases” And nothing has changed. This recording came on a vinyl and was played on BBC radio last year on ‘Late night Junction'. It is so intense.

I am playing very little at the moment. It is fine because I am focusing on playing my own music and developing my own way of approaching the bass in a Carlo Mombelli way and I want to get into a spiritual part of music. I am adding Kheenan Ahrends to the project, he is a brilliant guitarist. It is called Angels and Demons, the positives and negatives of everything.

I teach at the University. My whole approach is about art. And academia is really good – the critical thinking – it is fantastic but you also need artists in the institutions. I have an important role to play, making sure that the students find some sort of inspiration. And what is difficult about an institution and learning music is they all expect you to arrive at the same place at the same time at the same level – however everybody is different. My concept is the idea of the garden. Take seeds, everyone is different and the important part is the nurturing of it: we are watering it and giving information and knowledge. Each seed grows at its own pace. Everybody is different. Wynton Marselis starts playing incredible trumpet when he is 16 and someone else might reach that when he is 40 years old. And that is fine. We have to try and realise that and deal with students in a very human way. And make sure that we realise that and not put them down in any way. The idea for me is to give the students an inspiration and make sure they continue to believe in themselves.

Now I have been given this professor ship and maybe people will take me more seriously when I say actually when you were a child you were who you were and the more art educated you got the more you were pulled away from who you really were. What happens is we spend the rest of our lives trying to find out how we really were by going back to childhood. Your voice as who you were was as a child, when you didn't think about everything. You weren't scared to make mistakes. You make mistakes and you laugh about it and continue but it is in our mistakes that we learn and in our mistakes we cover new things.

I go overseas every two years to teach at this incredible conservatory in Basel. They invite me to run the ensembles. Incredible place; the rhythm section of Brad Mehldau teaches there. The conservatoire in Munich, that is where it started and I realised that actually I could teach. I was invited to the audition and they were looking for a lecturer. I left school I had no matric and qualifications to study. And now I have a doctorate and now I am a professor, but it doesn't make you a better musician or a better person, the bank maybe takes you a bit more seriously.

I walked on the stage and played “My friends and I,” and I taught the student showing him how to approach a G major scale over two octaves. I saw he didn't know what impact silence has so I just tried to be honest with the guy and help him as much as I could. The conservatoire called me in and said my half an hour was so honest and intensely full of art that they are going to have to write a letter to the municipality of Munich who supports the conservatoire to explain why they are going to give the job to a foreigner who doesn't have any degrees. I realised that the concept of teaching is about being honest. And that is what music is. If you are honest in your music – it is not about winning awards, you can't judge art really. Art is about something else than technique it is about emotions.

I realised maybe I can teach because I taught myself. I have never had a bass lesson. I taught myself composition and bass but directly that is not true, I had many teachers. My vinyl collection was my teacher. I used to put on my vinyls and jam with them and transcribe off them. And I learnt from Johnny Fourie. He wasn't my teacher but playing in his band, he booked me when I was 22. I used to go to his gigs when I was at school and used to record his set with a tape recorder and transcribe their stuff. I knew what they were playing. But, I turned the gig down. He called me back and said you only get one chance. So I said all right I will take it. Playing with Johnny Fourie; we would play every night, and in the breaks he was very honest with me. He was saying, ‘You play to many notes, speed is not what it is all about'. I used to practice a lot, so was very fast. Space, silence! In the breaks I would sit and practice things that he showed me.

It was me and Duke Makasi and then this young drummer Kevin Gibson came in. We were learning. We were doing an apprenticeship. I still believe in apprenticeships, but apprenticeships don't work for everyone. Some people have to go the university type of learning. A way of learning being passed on from the master to the student every day – it is probably one of the greatest learnings. It is like having a guru experience where you are learning every day. It is an oral tradition. That is how music is passed down through the centuries and I hope we don't lose that way of learning.

When that gig came to an end I started my band Abstractions I booked Johnny to play in my band.

The highest degree you can go to is doctorate. After that you can do another doctorate. Professorship is not a degree it is based on recognition of the things that you are doing and you understand what you are doing. I really don't know what it is actually – but I am very happy about it and I am not taking anything away from it because people have recognised I have done things.

I was invited to Switzerland in 2015 for the Directors Jazz Conference where they invite a composer from all over the world to lead their masters students from 5 universities. You spend one week with them and then make a tour playing your music and your concepts.



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