Scenes From His Life

People in the music business aren't given to superlatives. It's not cool to be impressed by the latest whiz kid to hit town. But even the hippest of the hip give it up when the subject turns to Richard Bona, a slight, shy virtuoso of the electric bass guitar from a mud-hut village deep in Cameroon. "My jaw was on the floor," says New York producer and recording engineer Paul Wickliffe, who first heard Bona during a recent session led by veteran jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. "He was all over the bass." Paris, an earlier port of call, also has been taken. "A player such as Richard comes along once every 10 years," says Alpha Diallo, a music specialist at Radio France Internationale. "He blows people away."

Can a 31-year-old African define the shape of jazz to come? Columbia Jazz thinks he may. This week it will release Bona's debut record, "Scenes From My Life," worldwide. Bona and his band will give up jamming in such little New York nightspots as The Zinc and Izzy Bar to embark on a three-month tour. The record company's backing is an acknowledgment both of the internationalization of an American art form and of one man's unique gifts. Jazz, after all, has always been about synthesis. "This is the first African artist to coherently synthesize African and Occidental musics," says Diallo.

Bona's musical roots couldn't be deeper. His grandfather, a traditional drummer and singer, made Richard a xylophone-like wooden instrument called the balaphon when Richard was 3. At 5 he was singing and performing on drums and balaphon at weddings and baptisms; his mother directed the choir. At 8 he fashioned a guitar, using wood, gourds and the cables from bicycle hand brakes. "I told the bicycle repairman jokes and took the cables when he wasn't looking," Bona says.

The prodigy got his first steady gigs when his father, a truck driver, moved the family to Cameroon's main city, Douala. At first the boy played only traditional music, concentrating on guitar. Then a French hotel owner asked him to learn some jazz tunes and loaned him records. The first one he spun was by an American virtuoso of the electric bass, Jaco Pastorius. Bona took two strings off his guitar and never looked back. By the time he hit Paris, at the age of 22, people were calling him the African Jaco. He had perfectly assimilated Pastorius's creamy sound, emblematic of the best-selling '70s fusion group Weather Report.

Bona thrived in Paris but ultimately found it confining. He felt pigeonholed as a jazz and African bassist and wanted to play all kinds of music. One of the songs on his new record hinges on another grievance: French law requires that radio stations devote 40 percent of their programming to French music, but that doesn't include music by Francophone Africans. Against the advice of friends who said African music doesn't work in America, he left for New York four years ago.

Almost immediately, such top-shelf bandleaders as Joe Zawinul and Randy Brecker started hiring him.He worked with Chaka Khan and Queen Latifah. He directed Harry Belafonte's band for more than a year. When he was at home in Brooklyn, he frequented late-night jam sessions, especially where there were top Latin players. He was so caught up in the scene that Columbia had to pester him for his demo tape, he says, adding, "I am a messy man."

The songs he ultimately wrote, personal stories delivered in an ethereal falsetto, have irresistible hooks. The music is hard to categorize; Bona sings mainly in his native language, and keeps his virtuosity in the background. But "wherever they put it is fine with me," he says, adding, "I don't care about money or politics." He cares about learning. Bona recently traveled to India on vacation, and was floored by a drummer he found playing in a park. He hopes someday to move on to South America. Music fans around the world will enjoy the journey.