Etienne Mbappe: The Man with the Silk Gloves
“So I studied well, I learned Classical music and I learned Opera music; all the technical background stuff. This was in 1984 when I was twenty and it was a very exciting time for African music in Paris. Salif Kaita and Manu Dibango were very big on the scene at that time.”
The Dood: Etienne Mbappe, It’s a pleasure and honour to link up with you. You’re the man with the silk gloves who plays an awesome bass. What are the roots behind you beginning to play this particular instrument?
Etienne Mbappe: I was taught guitar because my older brother had one and taught me my first chord. So I took to the guitar, and when I was fourteen years old I arrived in Paris, France and was still playing rhythm guitar; playing pretty much Cameroonian music. That was in 1978. I went to music school, because at that time I didn’t know how to read music. I started to learn about music and who people like the Rolling Stones were, because I didn’t know. So that’s how I started, but when I was seventeen I wanted to start a band with some friends. However, there were lots of guitar players but no bass players, so I picked up the bass. I knew a little bit about the bass, because in the Cameroon there are a lot of good bass players. So I picked up the base and began to play, and that was at the age of twenty in 1984.
The Dood: Did the band have a name that time?
Etienne Mbappe: No, I was just jamming with some friends.
The Dood: When did you know that being a bass player would be a career for you?
Etienne Mbappe: Actually I was so at school… But by the age of seventeen I knew it was what I wanted to do. I knew it secretly inside, but did not want to tell my parents; because they would say, “What are you kidding, you want to do music!” They wanted me to go to school to be a doctor or lawyer or whatever. I said, “Yeah! Yeah!” to my dad, but deep down I knew that music was my calling. So then my dad said, “Okay! Okay! If that’s what you want to do.” So I studied well, I learned Classical music and I learned Opera music; all the technical background stuff. This was in 1984 when I was twenty and it was a very exciting time for African music in Paris. Salif Kaita and Manu Dibango were very big on the scene at that time. I was just a new kid in town and everybody was asking me to play in their band.
The Dood: Like a session musician?
Etienne Mbappe: Yeah, like a session musician? So I ended up playing with all those great musicians because of my growing reputation.
The Dood: For the record what those ATN mean?
Etienne Mbappe: (Laughs) Oh! That’s my name! It’s Etienne, but to help people pronounce it I said just call me ATN!
The Dood: When did you introduce the black silk gloves and why?
Etienne Mbappe: Ahh! That’s a very good question. I’ve been playing with those since the age of eighteen. I was looking for my own sound. Initially it was just for a joke; when I was learning my scales I didn’t want to look at my hand, so I covered it with a towel.
The Dood: So effectively you are learning blind?
Etienne Mbappe: Correct! But I also ended up loving the sound of the fingers with something around them. Then my wife said to me, “Why don’t you use gloves instead?” So she gave me her woollen gloves, but they broke in the second! So then she suggested silk gloves, because some people use them when they’re skiing. So I tried that and I just loved the sound. I did some experiments playing the bass with and without them and there was no question about it, the sound is much better with!
The Dood: So that became your signature look?
Etienne Mbappe: That’s my signature! If you see that anywhere else, I’ve been copied. I’ve had musicians such as Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller asking for the secret is to my sound. They can’t believe it something so simple as the gloves.
The Dood: And you put an elastic band around your wrists to stop the glove slipping of your fingers?
Etienne Mbappe: Yeah that’s about it.
The Dood: In the 80s played in that great jazz fusion band called Ultra Marine, who fused the elements of Jazz, African and Caribbean music. How was that experience?
Etienne Mbappe: I was very young; I was about twenty-one years old and it was the band in which I wrote my first compositions, my first songs. It was one of the first jazz fusion bands in France; it was one of the first African/Nigerian bands in France. We used to fuse the music – the background was jazz, because we really loved jazz; we loved the freedom of improvisation. We mixed it with African and West Indian roots, because the keyboard player was from Martinique in the French West Indies and the guitar player was from Vietnam. It was a very multicultural thing and we just loved playing together and building something together. It was the first time that I saw my compositions on CD and heard them on the radio! I was like wow! Everyone is doing their own thing now but, we are all still really great friends; we go to dinner together and play together sometimes.
The Dood: Your second album Dé was voted 1989’s Best World Music Album. Why the title Dé?
Etienne Mbappe: Oh! It means two. In French it is spelt deux but in French West Indian dialect they say dé. That was our second album, hence the name Dé.
The Dood: Would it be fair to say that that’s when your profile was raised around the whole of Europe?
Etienne Mbappe: Yes. Even the French national orchestra began to take notice of me. The musical director said, “Hey, I want you in our orchestra!”
The Dood: And so is this what led to the Quincy Jones connection?
Etienne Mbappe: Yes, because there was a very big anniversary to do with the liberation of France. It was a really huge open-air concert held at the Bastille in Paris and I wrote a song for it. Quincy Jones attended the rehearsals and afterwards he asked, “Who composed the groovy music for that song and the musical director said, “Oh the composer is that bass player over there.” He came over to me and grabbed me and said, “Wow! Wow! I love these songs!” And I was looking at him with the same astonishment, because this man was like God to me. He said, “Here are my details and we will remain in contact, and i’ll see you later!” And we are still in touch today. He just loved that song and I was the only one that was personally introduced by Quincy Jones on the night! “Now we’re going to play this song written by Etienne Mbappe, bass player from the Cameroon…!” I was the only one that was introduced in that way!
The Dood: The Joe Zawinal connection, how did that come about?
Etienne Mbappe: We met when I was playing with the Mali singer named Salif Keita. I was the MD for Salif Keita for a while. We went to the States, we toured in the States. We played in Los Angeles, California and Joe Zawinal showed up. Anyway Joe had arranged to produce Salif’s next album. So he asked for me and Paco the drummer from the Ivory Coast to remain as the backbone when we went to the studio to record the CD. We were playing Salif’s stuff and Joe really dug the African groove. So when we had a one-hour break, we were playing some of the Weather |Report stuff. He said, “You know that tune!” We said, “Of course we know that!” I was like a kid. He said, “Oh, we will soon play together, I want you in the band!” So from 1999/2000 me and Paco (drums) joined his band and I stuck with Joe for two and a half years. I had a really great time, we played some great music. I was like a kid, touring around the world with this great master. I worked with him also alongside the Jazz singer called Dee Dee Bridgwater.
The Dood: Your liaison with John McClaughlin, how was that formed?
Etienne Mbappe: Actually, he saw me playing in a festival in Nice, South of France – it was a huge festival – playing with Joe Zawinal! He asked for my contact details and he said he would get in touch. He called me about six years afterwards and said, “It’s now, I need you now, I’m free!” I said, “Yes!” So that’s how I got to play with McClaughlin.
The Dood: So you linked up with his band the 4th Dimension?
Etienne Mbappe: That’s correct. He’s a great person and a great musician. In fact a lot of his band were UK musicians. He had Gary Husband on keyboards and Mark Mondesir on drums.
The Dood: Talking of drums, from your point of view what is the connection between the drummer and the bass player? Is it true they play off one another?
Etienne Mbappe: Yeah! Definitely! Drums and bass make people dance… When the drums and bass are not together the music is wishy-washy.
The Dood: Then you did some work with Steps Ahead in 2007/2008.
Etienne Mbappe: Yes, this is the connection, because they saw me playing with Joe (Zawinal). It was the sax player who saw me playing and recommended me to Mike Mainieri from Steps Ahead. While there were touring Europe me told Mike that there’s this awesome bass player infarcts that they need to check out. So that’s how I joined t with them.
The Dood: Regarding Ray Charles, I believe you played in his very last recording?
Etienne Mbappe: I worked with him with the jazz singer called Dee Dee Bridgwater. I got a call from my friend Junior and he said, “I’m calling you about doing a recording session with Ray Charles!” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” He said, “No I’m not kidding you, it’s tomorrow evening.” I said, “Are you kidding me! Where? What time?” I showed up and I was so nervous. When I walked in the studio I was introduced to him; the music was already written and he said, “Don’t worry about what’s written we’re just going to go with the flow.” And that was it; he just said, “One! Two! Three! Four! And we were off. We played for about 15 minutes and then he was off?
The Dood: Is it true that when great musicians play with each other instinctively? It’s like top-class football players instinctively know when to pass another.
Ettiene Mbappe: Yes definitely! It’s the same with musicians. Playing with guys like Ray Charles, I mean they could play anything! It was a short time with him, but it’s something that stays in your heart all your life.
The Dood: With respect to your music, where would you say your writing style came from?
Etienne Mbappe: The roots of my music of course are in Africa, because I was born and grew up in Cameroon… I love Jazz, I love Rock music and Rock energy; one of my favourite bands is Queen. So the roots are in Africa, Jazz of course because of the freedom and improvisation and the inner energy of Rock – that’s very important! It’s a powerful music, really! I like to catch the crowd’s attention and try to make contact with them, because it’s like a journey. I try to explain to them the meaning of my lyrics, because I talk about a lot of issues and things that are happening in the world. Then as soon as they’ve got the meaning, then they’re INTO the song. I don’t want to do instrumental music anymore because I’m old enough, I’m forty-seven; I feel like I can tell my little stories now you know. I have a lot to say.
The Dood: The song “Misiya”, what does that mean in English?
Etienne Mbappe: “Misiya” that means scream. In life there are different screams, it’s a scream. In life their different screams; when a baby is born it screams out, when you’re happy because you’ve succeeded in exam you scream out. It could be a sad scream, a joyful scream, a worrying scream – so that’s the meaning of “Misiya”.
The Dood: Regarding albums what is the situation with new material?
Etienne Mbappe: I’m working on my third album. I’m not in a hurry, I’m my own producer. I don’t have the pressure from a record company; I do whatever I want to. I travel around the world; I see people and then make an album. I just don’t want to be in a situation where the record company says, “Oh you owe us an album by next week.”
The Dood: Then it doesn’t come naturally?
Etienne Mbappe: No, it wouldn’t, because for me I need time. So “Misiya” was in 2004 and then Su La Také was in 2008; as for the third one, no date fixed as yet. (Noster Pater (CD) Subsequently Released in 2013)
The Dood: What make of guitar do you play?
Etienne Mbappe: Actually I play two. My main base is the bass from a French maker called Christian Noguero http://www.noguera-basses.com/ He’s my friend, I own about ten to fifteen of his basses. When he wants to trial a prototype, he gives it to me; if I like it I keep it if I don’t like it I give it back. So I’ve been trying them and trying them and trying. And now actually I bought another bass that I’m going to play tonight from a German guy called Gerald Marleaux He’s a great bass maker and a great guy from Germany. I’ve been playing his bass many times now and I just like it.
The Dood: Tell me about the band you’ve put together?
Etienne Mbappe: Oh, they are like family. This is Cate; she’s been in the band from the beginning of the band, the birth of the band; since the year 2000. She’s also the boss of the band. She’s a vocalist and a great dancer, that’s Cate. Next to her is Clement, who is our violin player; and I like Clement because his notes are from all over! He played notes that are gypsy or they are from North Africa – that’s the way I like it. And of course he has that classical flavour to his playing as well. He’s just a great player. This is Cedric, a great guitar player and he’s been in the band for three years… He provides the harmony because we don’t have keyboard or piano. He is a great soloist as well as is Clement.
And this is the youngest guy in the band the drummer Nicolas. I met Nicolas “drums” when he was seventeen or eighteen years old in Nice, South of France where he was based. I met him during our after gig jams with Joe Zawinal. We used to jam together in a hotel and he asked if he could play with us. So year after year I saw how he was progressing and asked him, “When you are coming to Paris?” When he reached Paris he called me and I asked him, “Do you want to join my band?” I didn’t ask him if he wanted to play, I asked him if he wanted to join the band. He said, “Yes”; so here you have Nicolas.
The Dood: What advice would you give young, up-coming bass players or musicians per se?
Etienne Mbappe: Practice, practice and practice. Of course practice is important, but practice is nothing without the content, the relationships that you build up with people that you meet. So practice and also being aware and trying to be in the right place at the right time. Practice to me is like second nature, if you want to play good you have to practice. Also you must have the freedom to do what you want, to play the style of music that you want to play.
The Dood: What is your preference studio recording or playing live?
Etienne Mbappe: I like doing projects for recordings. I don’t want to be what I used to be when I was young, i.e a session musician. Now I want to be on tour most of the time with my band; and sometimes touring with my friends. I love being on tour, rather than in the studio, because being on tour you get to see lots of places where as being in the studio you’re locked in a room.
The Dood: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Etienne Mbappe: I hope we’re going to have a great show tonight and we’re gonna give the maximum as we always do and we hope that the London audience like it.
The Dood: Wonderful.
Michael J Edwards
Essential Tour Dates (with John McClaughlin): http://www.etiennembappe.com/index.php?page=5
Essential Solo Albums:
Pater Noster (2013)
Su La Také (2008)