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Doctor Carlo Mombelli is a South African legend. From performing around the world to his many recordings and collaborations with South African artists to his performances at the many festivals and on the best stages in the country, this genius bassist is celebrating his 10th release, aptly named Stories. Therese Owen attended his regular Wednesday show at Bassline and discovered a wild punk performer and a dignified musician with crazy life stories.
Carlo Mombelli’s first public performance as a bassist was at the Hotel Hellenic. He performed with friends from his school.
“We were playing this heavy fusion jazz,” he recalls. “But what we didn’t know was that it was a brothel! Anyway, I got off stage and went up to this guy and said: ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ and he just replied: ‘Kak’. That was my first gig as a bassist.”
When you ask artists how they first got into music many say through the church and its choir. Mombelli’s answer is far from that.
“My first experience with music was watching Swan Lake. It was a baptism into music for me. The visual was already there as part of the music. My father, who owned a restaurant, wanted me to be a cook, but I wanted to do music. I finally went to piano lessons when I was 10. I would go to other people’s houses to practise. My father had a band playing covers and I used to have a high voice. I still do, actually.”
He pauses. “Like when they phone my landline and I answer, people say: ‘May I speak to your husband’. Anyway, I failed a year because I was working as the cabaret act in my father’s restaurant. There was an act after me. It was a stripper called Glenda Kemp who was a megastar at the time with her python. I would leave the club before she did anything. I was in standard six at the time.”
Mombelli fell in love with the bass when he first heard the band Weather Report. He says he taught himself about music by carrying musicians’ instruments into their practice rooms so that he could spend time with them.
He had a practice room at Arcadia Shopping Centre and would sleep there during the school holidays. He and his band mates would go to the Bella Napoli night-club where jazz legend Johnny Fourie would perform.
“We’d record him and play his music as part of our practice.”
Other memories include being picked up by his close friend, Greg Georgiades, on his scrambler. They would race off to gigs, Mombelli holding both their instruments on the back of the bike.
Mombelli’s break came when he and his band entered a battle of the bands competition. Fourie’s band were also performing. Mombelli was in his early 20s. It was here Fourie heard him for the first time.
Fourie got a gig playing six nights a week at a venue called Stats. In the band was also tenor saxophonist Duke Makazi.
When Fourie asked Mombelli to play with him he initially refused because he did not think he was good enough. When he finally agreed, Fourie nurtured his talent.
“I got six months of training every night. I’d rehearse during breaks as well as during the day.”
Also in the band was a 17-year- old Kevin Gibson, who went on to become a great drummer.
“My wife supported me while I practiced in Yeoville.”
Mombelli recorded his first album on Shifty Records, titled
On the Other Side, and then went abroad.
Since those early days, he has become one of the most respected bassists in the country and is well known for his highly experimental, yet precise compositions.
His achievements include performing at international festivals from Stockholm to Brazil.
Back home he has worked with musicians like Khaya Mahlangu, Bheki Khoza, Bruce Cassidy, McCoy Mrubata and Tony Cox.
He was the composer in residence at Wits University in 2004 where he now lectures.
He also has a residency at Bassline in Newtown every Wednesday night where he performs and encourages young musicians to perform with him or as solo artists. The showcase aims to discover and develop new talent.
Attending on Wednesday night was a fantastical journey. When Mombelli opens with a keyboardist and drummer who are performing his own music, he is the rock star. But he gives the youngsters space because that is what is expected in his art form and that is what he trusts them to do and that is what they do. Occasionally, he has an outbreak of vocals which borders on anarchic, it is so unexpected.
He is totally in the moment of the music and nothing else matters. He has the ability to make the bass sound like an acoustic guitar and then a rock guitar. It is absolutely fascinating to watch. His music can be dark and esoteric, then rebellious and fiery, frightening then gentle.
Earlier this year he released his 10th album, Stories. It is music which only Mombelli can create.
“This album is full of melody for me. I would say that it is film music played live. I really love the sound design and the feeling that film music gives the dialogue.
“The beautiful thing about this album was working with vocalist Mbuso Khoza who comes from a traditional Zulu background.
“I listen to a lot of European music. However, after 35 years I have found my own voice in my compositions and mixing it with Mbuso is very beautiful.
“The way that I play bass now, I don’t think anyone else plays bass like me. I just want my bass to play music, use it as a palette. My instrument is a tool to paint my compositions and not to play the bass.
“I have always been aware of sound. A lot of my influences are from sounds from nature.”
• Carlo Mombelli will perform on Friday and Saturday at UCT College of Music at 8.30pm with Kyle Shepherd on piano, Kesivan Naidoo on drums and Mbuso Khoza on vocals. Stories will be on sale at the venue. Otherwise, the CD is available at carlomombelli.com.