A confluence of musical worlds

A confluence of musical worlds

Renowned guitarist from Cameroon, Etienne Mbappé, was in town recently for a fusion concert

Born in Douala, Cameroon, Etienne Mbappé is a master of technique and rhythm, not only in bass, but also in voice. A Francophone, he studied classical guitar and classical contrabass from 1978 to 1983 at the Conservatory of Chevilly in France. Today, he has managed to create a musical genre of his own, transcending the boundaries between African music, funk, rock, jazz and classical. His songs are powerful and energetic and yet are graced with his beautiful vocal harmonies and rhythms.

Mbappé is a band member of John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension as well as the Ringers and has launched his fourth solo album ‘How Near How Far’, which is instrument based. His latest album also marks the debut of his band ‘The Prophets’ and features 11 Mbappé originals that fuse together many international traditions.

He performed on the first day of the Udupa Festival held recently at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru. At the festival, one got a glimpse of the range and depth of his repertoire. “We played a bit of everything really. We played some songs that we’ve adapted from my repertoire with my band ‘The Prophets’; we also played some material that Ranjit (Barot) bhai had written specifically for this trio (Christophe Cravero on keyboards and violin and Ustad Taufiq Qureshi, percussion). We also had the pleasure of interacting with some fabulous singers. Kaushiki Chakraborty and Vijay Prakash joined us on stage as well.”

Asked if music can help transcend differences arising due to race, colour and ethnicity, Mbappé says, “when musicians come together, boundaries disappear. They are unified by the sound they are creating and they become ‘one’. Furthermore, the audience is also a part of that experience and meld into the sound that they’re hearing. En masse, they also are thus unified.”

Playing in several bands with a wide variety of artistes allows him to create diverse music. “It is precisely this diverse complexity that fuels our creativity. In the eyes of an artiste, every environment is an inspiration for creation. It is a mechanism we possess to deal with the pressures of life and journey. The music we make gives meaning to our very existence,” says Mbappe.

Unique musical vocabulary

As a member of John McLaughlin’s band, ‘4th Dimension’, Mbappé has the privilege of observing McLaughlin’s work from close quarters. Asked if he can discern Indian influences in McLaughlin’s playing and musicianship, Mbappé says, “I witness it every night on stage. Especially in the exchanges that he and Ranjit share musically. It is evident that Indian music, especially the rhythmic system, plays a large part in his composition style and the phraseology in his soloing.”

A drummer for the 4th Dimension, Ranjit Barot’s Indian roots, coupled with his exposure to jazz and rock, give him a unique musical vocabulary, both as a drummer and as a composer. Asked if Indian rhythms resonate with the music of Africa, Mbappé says, “there are quite a few meeting points in our musical cultures. Both our music stem from a socio-cultural standpoint — songs of joy, celebration of seasons, etc. Rhythmically, the South Indian system is more advanced, but Africa too has a way of looking at the numerical aspect of rhythm in a unique way. And we too have a culture of preservation and continuity, passed down from generation to generation.”

Mbappé is a proficient songwriter. As a vocalist composing in his own tongue, he says music in national languages can resonate with audiences worldwide. “We have to be skilled songwriters in order to speak to the hearts and minds of our audiences. The language thus becomes merely a vehicle for our intentions. Their true meaning lies within and literal interpretations take a backseat.” 

He has been visiting India quite often and has recorded music and collaborated with Indian artistes. “I did some work on Dhruv Ghanekar’s record. I also had the privilege of recording an album, which Ranjit bhai put together with the late great Mandolin U Srinivas, whom we lost too early.” 

Mbappé says he loves coming to India for the people and the food. “And of course, the music! Ranjit bhai is responsible for a lot of these visits and I am glad that through him, I get to see the real India.”

The author is a writer, culture critic and former editor of a classical music magazine.

Sounds Of Music is your genre-bending occasional column on all that is groovy in global music.

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