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Interview Carlo Mombelli

“Carlo Mombelli's music is that of a quintessential Prisoner of Strange. It's visionary, emotional and experimental, in a society that doesn't applaud artistry and integrity. His music sits on the cusp of sanity, where madness and brilliance share space, where true art resides. Mombelli has found in his music the expressive soul of the developing world mixed with the technical profundity of the classical world.” Struan Douglas in Sunday Independent

On first hearing Bats in the Belfry in the year 2000 and then first seeing the Prisoners of Strange at the Cape Town jazz festival in the year 2000 I became a true fan of the music of Carlo Mombelli.

It took Carlo ten years to break into the South African Jazz scene after returning to South Africa from Europe in the late nineties. Carlo's positivity is unwavouring.

“If something is not happening then make it happen,” he says. “When there was nothing happening in Johannesburg we started the Thursday night jam sessions at Zoo Lake Bowling Club.”

These Thursday evening jam sessions at the bowling club have become legendary opportunities for musicians to collaborate. And it is a platform for younger musicians to play amongst older more established musicians.

Carlo gave me the analogy of a farmer throwing his seeds into the open field. The seeds represented human potential. Carlo said, “The plants will shoot up at different speeds and that is because each seed is unique. “Each seed has as its common purpose to bloom. It will bloom no matter how long it takes.”

Carlo maintains that this ‘blooming journey of life' is happening all around us. He draws the example of Wits music school where he is currently engaged in a teaching post. In his improvisation class he has the classical students and then after that the jazz students come for their session. And they have a digital class as well where they learn about sound.

He said, “The exciting thing about the Wits music school is that the classics and jazz departments have merged. This is good for education because for example a jazz musician should know what a fugue is and a classical musician should know how to play their way around the cycle of fifths. The music school is alive with potential and possibilities.”

At one stage Carlo was the only musician with a residency at the Bassline. Owner Brad Holmes once said that Mombelli was bad for business because when he plays the bar quietens so much that ice can be heard melting. The point is that Mombelli is a rather eccentric fellow whose music is large and imaginative. He is in the habit of attracting the very best musicians to his side. Mombelli's music is therefore sophisticated and classic. His band is the Prisoners of Strange and Mombelli commands their best with a most exaggerated reverse-shoulder action. This is the result of a stage-diving injury in a crowded stadium in Brazil, where Mombelli played with the all-star Riaz de Peda orchestra, led by the brilliant Egberto Gismonti.

The most recent interview with Carlo Mombelli was on September 7 th 2006. This is what he said:

If the music was composed or improvised from that inner child that we search for, pure and innocent, listening to the voice of your muse, then we are on the right track of beauty. Art must uplift you, transport you, challenge you, touch your inner being, bring some form of hope and faith and a sense that it is some sort of a miracle. An artist tells his side of the story in truth, sad or good. He tells his story of the everyday life through his eyes. Picasso's ´Guernica‘ is such an example of a great work.

The main way of composition is through improvisation. It is important to jam a bit after practicing. Improvisation produces composition. Improvisation means spontaneous in the moment: right then and there. Conversation is improvisation. The composer brings a topic and gives a platform for a debate. And I invite high quality and interesting speakers to debate the topic with their voice. All the music that I play is enjoyed by all the musicians.

Music comes from intuition. We've got our subconscious which is our library for information. When fighting in the martial arts they repeat the movements. They are filling up the subconscious with movements. They always learn slowly because accuracy breeds speed. You have to put the movements in 100% correct otherwise you start memorizing bad habits. What brings all the moves out of the subconscious is the muse. And that is how people play music.

Technique is a means of how we can take what is inside and share it with a person outside. The better our technique the better we will be able to share it. Knowledge breeds quality. You got to have passion in anything you do. Passion drives you. You got to have talent. But the main thing is discipline. Discipline and Passion go together. I practice every day without fail. I force myself to improve. There is so much to learn. I want to be an incredible musician. I am not thinking about the future. I am striving for perfection. But perfection does not exist. That is the future.



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In 2000, Carlo and I shared an email correspondence. Carlo wrote:

It is impossible to be self-conscious and totally involved in the music at the same time. Consciousness of self is a barrier between the player and the instrument. As I forget my own presence, I attain a state of oneness with the activity and become absor bed in a way that defies the passage of time,” from the book ´Being at the Piano‘ by Mildred Chase.

At 8 my mom takes me to see the ballet 'Swanlake'. I fall in love with the music. My parents send me to piano lessons. At 14 I start singing in my dad's restaurant with the regular cover band. I remember singing the Michael Jackson song 'Ben'. I had a high voice and still have one. I had to leave the restaurant immediately after I sang as the stripper Glenda Kemp used to do her act after me with a python. I studied classical music as a subject at Pretoria Boys High where I composed a piano piece I played for an exam. I started playing the bass at 16 in a band after hearing Jaco Pastorius with Weather Report. I experienced the same baptism feel about music that I had when I was 8. Our band played the music of Weather Report, Billy Cobham and Chick Corea. We worked out these tunes from bootleg tapes I made of the Johnny Fourie band that played in Hillbrow. I carried the guitarist George Vardis's guitar a few kilometres to rehearsals every weekend and every day in the holidays in exchange for information on the modal system (scales). When I left home in standard nine I worked in a music shop on the weekends. The owner was Andre Steenkamp and he introduced me to a lot of music and got me a gig with the jazz pianist Ricky Anandale. I did not know anything about walking bass so he wrote out all my bass lines for me. Around this time I discovered the music of Eberhard Weber, Ralph Towner, and E.C.M. Records that has had a major influence on my compositions. I tried to copy the sound. I started a band called 'Reflections' that I used to workshop and develop my composition abilities. I got called up to the army and landed up in the 'entertainment unit'. I was always in trouble for playing original music at the generals' weddings etc. Most musicians did not want to play with me as they said I was a 'pseudo intellectual' bassist. So, they put me in the office to work out everyone's leave. This gave me the time to do a year long weekend gig with the pianist Ricky Anandale where I learnt to walk the bass over jazz changes. When I finished in the army Johnny Fourie heard me at a competition and offered me a six month gig, 6 nights a week playing jazz. This was my major jazz school.

In the early eighties, a beer company put on a nation-wide jazz talent search. I entered with a band I had at the time and even though I knew very little about jazz, my group was chosen for the top five finalists. Johnny had also entered with Sean (his son) and was also chosen. The evening of the competition (held at the Sandton Sun Hotel in Johannesburg) was a stepping stone for me. Even though some smooth jazz group won the prize, a recording contract (nothing has changed), Johnny heard me play my music. He came over to me and told me how much he had enjoyed what I was doing.

When I started to play in ‘76, I used to go and listen to Johnny Fourie, Johnny Boshoff and Tony Moore jamming at a club in Hillbrow and I used to bootleg their shows, go home and work out all the stuff they were playing. So these guys were stars for me.

After that evening of the competition Johnny got a gig at Spats, the night-club of the Sandton Hotel, playing jazz six nights a week for six months. He put a band together and called me to play bass. I didn't feel I was ready to do a gig like that, as all I knew about jazz was reading the walking bass lines that Ricky had written for me. I turned down Johnny‘s gig but he told me, ”You only get one chance”. After he said that I took on the gig and prayed. Now I had always wanted to go and study music in America but that was too expensive and I never had, and to this day, still haven't had, a bass lesson, so this gig was probably the most important job I ever did. When a guru in India takes on a student, the student is with him every day, learning. Not like the once a week music lessons given in the West. Johnny took me in the breaks each night and showed me my mistakes and how to improvise. Johnny had become my Guru for the next six months. That band had Stan Jones on piano and Duke Makasi on sax who also took advantage of this guru situation. Now Neill Ettridge was playing drums and when he decided to do another gig Johnny got hold of this youngster, Kevin Gibson to finish the last month. When Spats came to the end, I was ready to play my own music again, but this time at a much higher level, so the first choice for my group was Johnny. When the gig ended I went into a woodshed period practising 14 hours a day for about four months before I started my first professional original music group called 'Abstractions'. As I was on my own I could not afford to study at an institution so I created my own environment. I learnt music on the stage.

In the eighties there were many clubs in Joburg. The most important one was Jamesons. When you went down those stairs and entered that place you knew you were in an exciting place and you would hear interesting bands and the apartheid bullshit stayed outside. Another great club was Rumours in Yeoville where we would all hang out on Sundays to play the jam sessions. That place was packed and they had a real piano just like Jamesons as well as Kippies. There is not a single jazz club in Joburg that can boast a piano today, probably the most important instrument in the history of jazz music and the core centre of any jazz club, world-wide. I played with my band Abstractions on average three times a week to small audiences and did a solo bass spot at the 'Black Sun' in Hillbrow at midnight every Friday where the Genuines where playing.

‘Abstractions' was a fantastic group and we worked hard. We would every now and then do block rehearsals of five days in a row to work on the new material I kept on writing and everyone was there to make it happen. The band had Johnny and Jo Runde on guitars, and Neill Ettridge on drums. With Abstractions I experimented with sound and the band performed at a very intense level. Every art page spoke about the band and Shifty records recorded and released our first and only album. But the music went over the heads of most people, it was just too different and in 1987 I realised that if I wanted to make some progress I had to go overseas. It is important to me that people can grasp and feel my music deep down.

As history speaks, we know that jazz originated from the slaves that were brought to America from Africa, and classical music has its roots firm in Europe but that's long past so we can't say that just white people listen to classical music and black people listen to jazz and blues. It is my impression that Brazil is one of the few countries to have fused so many styles from all different cultures to make their own music on a level like no other. They took the music from the Angolan slaves, mixed it with the European classical music that the Portuguese and other Europeans brought, and mixed that with the music of the Indians and the Amazonas, then introduced the jazz harmony from America and you have the most incredible music. Composers like Egberto Gismonti for example. I had the privilege of working and recording with Egberto in Europe, the few days that I spent with Egberto were a major learning experience for me. He showed me the depth of music. When he put his hand down on the piano in the sound check, music came out. There was just music. When we recorded we would sit first and discuss what we were going to say with the music and we would all get into the same frame of mind and then play. Classical musicians master there instruments and are expected to perform at a high level of musicianship and professionalism but what lacks in classical circles is the swing and the freedom of expression jazz musicians have. So if a musician can perform at the technical level of a classical musician with the soul of the third world you have an interesting mix. That's what Brazilians have done.

We did a jumble sale in our house just to raise enough money to get one way tickets to Europe. When I arrived I saw brilliant musicians waiting for me. After two weeks there was a big band auditioning bass players for ballroom gigs. I was very fortunate to get the gig. They give you a book of 300 pieces. No rehearsals. They call a number at the gig and you play. It is six hours. I learnt a helluva lot. I got a job at the Richard Strauss Conservatory in Munich teaching. The classical and jazz departments are great. There must be three hundred teachers there. The audition was very strange because you were invited. You walked into the room and you had loads of teachers to judge you and you had a student. First you had to have papers. I don't have a single paper. I am a self-taught bassist. I went from piano to bass. The guy auditioning before me was from Passport. The guy after me could play Giant Steps at double time. Hot guys! I played a solo bass piece and then I taught. I talked about silence and how to bring your voice out in your sound. We talked about art for half an hour. They asked me to play again. I played an emotional ballad. They said the performance was so passionate and the teaching was so intense. And I wasn't trying to impress anyone. And then they had to write a letter to the municipality explaining why they employed this guy with no papers. I started meeting up with other jazz musicians. I made an album in the Bauer studio. This was my dream. This place is like history. And the sound is incredible. When you go into mix you don't touch the board because it is perfect how the engineers set up. I was touring with Charlie Mariano. We did an album together. Six hours complete, Happy Sad (1992 ITM Pacific).

I certainly didn't find it easier though when I lived in Europe. There are a lot more great musicians and sound engineers and more festivals and more discerning audiences. The overall standard is higher. Jazz musicians over there are also struggling to make ends meet, find gigs and most of the time pay for their own recordings. That's why most of the jazz albums are done in one or two days. Bats in the Belfry (1997 Baobab) was a live recording, therefore done in three hours. That's why Marcus's record, Voice, Bheki Mseleku, Abdullah Ibrahim's and Zim Ngqawana's records breath, because they are played LIVE.

‘Bats in the Belfry' was from a concert for overseas radio. It was recorded onto DAT. It wasn't meant for release. The name of the band was Prisoners of Strange. It wasn't a commercial project. As I had no records out in South Africa I started Baobab art records to capture the art. The cover depicts an oil painting I bought in Prague. The artist painted this girl walking and above her head flies a bat. Well I spent a lot of time looking at this beautiful work and I have the feeling that she is mentally retarded. I use the painting as a cover to the CD because most of the music on the album Bats in the Belfry has been inspired by the painting. People may think this girl is weird and has a bat in the belfry, yet her world can be beautiful, a place we cannot understand. I have seen this in my music that what is normal, natural and beautiful to me, is usually strange to many others because they are maybe scared to come into that world.

I went to see the film ‘Chocolate' and wept afterwards because I saw the comparison. The chocolate lady created all these beautiful chocolates but everyone in the village treated her as strange and only those that were brave enough to go into her world and taste one of her chocolates realised how beautiful and delicious they really were and how normal she really was. The rest made her a Prisoner of Strange. We make all these wonderful chocolates but all the people want, and all that the industry want to sell, are crunchies and yogi bars. I gave up the teaching post at the Richard Strauss Conservatory in Munich to come home with my family, so that my two little daughters could grow up in this fantastic country. I was tired of greeting people who don't greet you back. I never felt European. My wife and I love South Africa and we never ever intended to stay away so long. The sunshine, the colour of the sand, the wildlife, the thorn trees, the music and the different cultures all in one country, this truly is a fantastic place.

I've noticed that everyone here is considered a genius. If that's the case Mozart, Beethovan, Jaco, Miles, Zawinel, they must be gods. Musicians that start new styles for me can be considered as genius. Musicians who are improvisers of the highest art form can be considered genius.

Let's get back to the music scene. One thing I have noticed here is the way jazz musicians turn to licks and gimmicks once they become famous. These same musicians played so beautiful then suddenly fame and all that beautiful music flew out the window.

So I would say another problem we have here is the lack of horn players that could play any chart you put in front of them, play it correctly, play it in tune, play it with soul and feeling then blow you off the stage when they improvise. Marcus has that. He now has the big task ahead of finding his voice but I am sure he will. That's what I respect with Hugh Masekela is that he has his sound. Even though I don't like the music he is now composing I still like to hear him play that Masekela style horn. Abdullah Ibrahim plays Abdullah.

On another note let me Quote from Nachmanovitch's book, ´Free Play‘.

‘ One of the most insidious kinds of pressure to which an artist can succumb is the pressure to be accessible. Well-meaning advisors may tell you that X is accessible, marketable, popular and so on, and there may be artists who naturally do X out of their own being and become popular and wealthy. But if you alter your work to be more X-ish, people will spot it as inauthentic; it will not be heartfelt X because it does not originate in your own being. By all means develop and revise your work to communicate more and more clearly; but if you alter one word in order to please some imagined market ”out there”, the integrity and originality of everything you do is at risk. Whereas if you create your own material in your own way, developing artwork that is more and more authentically yours, people will spot it as genuine.

' In resisting temptation to accessibility, you are not excluding the public; on the contrary, you are creating a genuine space and inviting people in. Ideally, artist and audience are close, inter-responsive, accessible to each other's minds and heart. But in a world of mass economics and mass communication, producers and middlemen of all kinds insist that our work conform to a lowest common denominator. Natural communication between artist and audience is stimulated by the banalities of market research and advertising. This is a particularly insidious process because it arises not from anyone's bad intentions but from the fundamental nature of large systems and institutions. The danger to the artist is that under pressure of these institutions he might internalise those demands and replace his immaculate, natural voice with an artificially synthesized one. On the other hand, if we self-consciously try to be original, we can wander in the opposite direction, going for a distinctive voice or look that sets you apart from everybody else. Young artists easily fall into the trap of confusing originality with newness. Originality does not mean being unlike the past or unlike the present; it means being the origin, acting out of your own.'

What unites classics and jazz is the search for new things. When you are searching you make statements like John Cage did with silence for 3 minutes forty-four in 1945. He arrived on stage opened up the piano to premiere his new work and sat there for exactly 3:44. He closed the piano and walked off the stage and that was a piece of music. He can't do that again. What he was trying is what happens within silence is actually music. He wasn't doing that to try and be different. He was a deep thinker. When you try to be different it becomes a gimmick. When you search you become experimental.


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