Etienne Mbappé: The Gloved One

With its dazzling chops and pan-global influences, Etienne Mbappé’s How Near How Far [Abstract Logix] could easily have been just another self-indulgent blowout from a fleet-fingered virtuoso intent on flaunting his post-Jaco bona fides.
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With its dazzling chops and pan-global influences, Etienne Mbappé’s How Near How Far [Abstract Logix] could easily have been just another self-indulgent blowout from a fleet-fingered virtuoso intent on flaunting his post-Jaco bona fides. But although the 11-track disc is packed with features commonly associated with the bombastic side of fusion—including complex arrangements, odd time signatures, tight unison lines, extreme dynamics, and serious soloing—How Near How Far also offers a few dishes missing from so many similar feasts: mature restraint, deeply felt emotion, and a youthful sense of adventure.

Perhaps Mbappé’s travels around the world have exposed him to so many flavors that his music organically combines them all. Born in 1964 in the central African country of Cameroon, Mbappé arrived in Paris at age 14, and after a stint in music school, he started his first band at 17 and began playing bass at 20. His timing was fortuitous: Paris in the 1980s was a crossroads of African sounds and a hotbed of world music, and young Etienne was in the mix and on the scene, playing and recording with acclaimed French fusion band Ultramarine and superstars like Manu Dibango. On tour with Malian singer Salif Keita, Mbappé met Joe Zawinul in Los Angeles, which led to gigs with Steps Ahead and two years with the Zawinul Syndicate. This led to playing in John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension, a gig Mbappé has held since 2009. Along the way, he has maintained a high-profile sideman career (Ray Charles, Robben Ford, all-star group the Ringers) and a busy calendar with his group Su La Také while achieving notoriety for the silk black Pipolaki gloves he wears to keep his strings bright.

How Near How Far introduces the high-powered six-piece Mbappé calls the Prophets, whose mission is to make music without borders and barriers. Unsurprisingly, the spirits of McLaughlin and Zawinul infuse the album, especially in its globetrotting mix of harmonic and rhythmic flavors, and despite the abundance of technique, one senses just as much warmth and humor, as well as a distinctly French soulfulness. There’s something for everyone: killer string and horn arrangements and cool bass/piano unison lines (“John Ji”), Africa-India fusion, with electric violin reminiscent of Jean-Luc Ponty (“Bandit Queen”), gorgeous fretless bass with spot-on intonation (the title track, “Assiko Twerk,” and “Mang Lady”), awesome horn parts, complex dynamics, and uptempo walking (“Bad As I’m Doing”), pocket funk (“Make It Easy”), and even a ballroom-ready tango in 7 (“Milonga in 7”). Mbappé is clearly having fun with this band of badasses; his playing overflows with heart, and his support of the soloists is inspired and involved. Somehow, he manages to never sound hyperactive and showy, just grooving, fully present, and firing on all cylinders. When How Near How Far fades out with Mbappé’s deep vocals on a plaintive ballad, “Musango Na Wa,” it’s a fitting closer that sweetly balances the album’s abundant firepower.

We caught the 56-year-old between shows with the Prophets and McLaughlin to ask about singing and playing, odd times, his bass-playing son Swaeli Mbappé, those gloves, and where it all started, in 1970s Cameroon.

In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned the first generation of great Cameroonian bass players such as Jean Dikoto Mandengue, Vic Edimo, Manfred Long, Rido Bayonne, Aladji Toure, and Bob Edjangue. What impact did they have on you?

Huge. Massive! These great masters are our gods in Cameroon. I knew them before I had ever heard of Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, or James Jamerson. They influenced several generations of Cameroonian bass players in a school without walls, by oral transmission from the oldest guys to the youngest.

Do you consider “oral transmission” better than music school?

The best way is to learn through both methods. If you have a chance to go to music school, it can be very important. Learning by oral transmission develops your instinct.

When you got to Paris, you studied upright bass for three years. How did it inform your bass approach?

Upright is a totally different instrument than electric bass. Studying classical upright for three years taught me, first of all, to be familiar with bass clef. I also learned upright fingering, and using a bow was so unusual. I loved it!

You also studied classical guitar. Do you recommend that bass players play some guitar?

It’s always good to play a chordal instrument. Guitar is the first instrument I learned to play. I never had a chance to study piano, so guitar is the only chordal instrument I play, even though I can play some nice chords and changes on piano today.

How did your time in music school help you with the complex music you play today?

When I arrived in France at the end of the ’70s, I knew very little about music. The time I spent studying music taught me the most crucial elements about jazz and pop—things like reading charts and knowing a little about classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart. The music I play today is a mix of my African background and roots, what I’ve learned, and my diverse influences.

How was it to be on the scene in Paris in the ’80s?

Those were great years. I was privileged to play what we now call world music with so many inspired musicians—recording, rehearsing, playing concerts until early hours in the morning, touring the world, bringing joy and happiness to people with such creative music. Amazing!

What made you decide to start the Prophets after Su La Také?

I wanted to get away from strict verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus-ad lib-fade out format. I was looking for a new challenge, and wanted to get back to instrumental music, with more freedom and longer improvisations. But there will definitely be more Sur La Také albums. I still love writing songs and singing.

One of the highlights of Su La Také is your harmonies with Cate Petit. How did you develop your ability to sing and play?

It’s not easy to play bass and sing at the same time. When the bass line is very different from the vocal line, I have to practice a lot. I do it pretty naturally, though, and I have my own tricks [laughs]. But being a lead singer is a lot more pressure than just being a bass player: You have to go to sleep early to save your voice, make sure the band is not playing loud, etc.

Do you learn John McLaughlin’s music by ear or by reading charts?

Both ways. When tunes are sometimes really tricky and fast, I need charts to understand the time signatures and get all the notes right.

What have you learned from the legends you’ve worked with?

Being among these masters has been a real blessing. McLaughlin and Zawinul totally changed the vision of jazz by adding sounds, scales, and spices from different parts of the world, which made the music more interesting. What I’ve learned from both of them is that there are no limits to music. Stick in what you think is good. Do it with honesty and humility, but do it. They also showed me the value of discipline and hard work.

You’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest drummers. Do you change your approach to fit each drummer?

I never change my approach. I am just aware of the environment, and I play what the environment tells me to play.

You aren’t afraid to dig in behind soloists.

It is totally purposeful. I love the freedom of not playing the same bass line every night when there’s a solo going on, and I love creating new lines that can give soloists fresh ideas.

Have you had a chance to check out Aladji Toure’s book, Les Secrets de la Basse Africaine?

Yes. It explains many nice grooves, and it’s a great overview of some classic African rhythms.

What differences have you noticed between the many African and Indian rhythms you’ve played?

Both traditions have so many rhythms, but there aren’t as many odd time signatures in Africa.

What advice would you give a bass player struggling with odd times?

The more you play odd times, the more you get familiar with it. Sometimes it’s good to create your own internal loop instead of counting. Some odd numbers are really tough, though.

The arrangements on How Near How Far are exquisite, and the trumpet/tenor/violin instrumentation is unusual. What’s your writing process?

I write on bass or guitar. When I built the band, I was hearing a section that mixed horns and strings, and that’s why I got tenor sax, trumpet, and Clement Janinet on violin. His violin sounds like no other—a cross between North Africa, West Africa, and the Middle East, with Arabian, Andalusian, Indian, and Eastern European influences. He is the only one I know who sounds like that. In the middle of the horns, he gives me that tasty, colorful, spicy tone I was dreaming of.

What advice do you have for composers who want to integrate many influences without sounding clinical and artificial?

No special advice. I love music that surprises me, and I am blessed to travel all around the world playing music, meeting different people, tasting a lot of different food, seeing a lot of different colors, and hearing a lot of different music that sometimes blows my mind. When I’m back home, my head is full of all this beauty, and that inspires my creative process. A blowing wind could be an inspiration, as well, if it talks to you and you can hear it talking. But what works for me may not work for others.

You’re well known for playing basses by Marleaux, Noguera, and F Bass. What do you look for in an instrument?

Great, big, smooth, round, precise tone is what I’m looking for.

Do you also play Warwick and Lairat instruments?

Yes I do. Seven of the 11 tunes on How Near How Far were recorded with a Warwick StarBass II Single Cut. The sound is massive and very precise. I love it.

Gloves keep your strings bright, but do you prefer the tone of gloves on strings?

I’m so used to these silk gloves. They’re totally a part of my sound now. When I play without them—when I’m called for a jam, for example—it sounds to me like I’m playing with a pick. I prefer my tone with glove on strings.

Are you still using DR Strings and EBS amps?

Yes. DR Strings are the best in the world. I’ve been playing EBS amps forever, and they’re a big part of my sound.

Do you have a regular practice routine?

Not really. I just grab a bass and let my fingers go. Sometimes they do scales, sometimes they play a spontaneous line that could end up being a tune or an idea for a song. I just let them do whatever they feel like doing.

What are some of the best ways to practice intonation on fretless bass?

Play softly, and focus on your vibrato by playing slow melodic lines.

What advice did you give your son Swaeli when he decided to get serious about bass?

I taught him the basics and essentials on bass and guitar, and I told him to be himself, no matter who his dad is. That’s what he has done. He is brilliant, so talented. Definitely one of my favorite bass players today!