Born in Douala, Cameroon, Etienne Mbappé is a Francophone and has studied Classical Guitar and Classical Contrabass from 1978 to 1983 at the Conservatory of Chevilly in France. He is a master of technique and rhythm, not only in bass but through his voice in his native Cameroonian language as well.
Between his studies and roots he has created a great musical genre of his own, transcending the boundaries between African music, funk, rock, jazz, and classical. His songs are powerful and energetic, yet are graced with his beautiful vocal harmonies and rhythms.
Mbappé is a band member of John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension and 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 which tie in many international traditions.
He performed on the first day of the Udupa Festival (February 20-22 at Chowdiah Memorial Hall). At the festival one got a glimpse of the range and depth of his repertoire. “We will play a bit of everything really. We played some songs that we’ve adapted from my repertoire with my band The Prophets. We played some material that Ranjit (Barot) bhai has written specifically for this trio (will include Christophe Cravero on Keyboards and Violin and Ustad Taufiq Qureshi, percussion). We also had the pleasure of interacting with some fabulous singers. Kaushiki Chakrabarthy 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 that “When musicians come together boundaries disappear. They are unified by the sound they are creating and 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 unified.”
Playing in several bands with a wide variety of artistes gives rise to an opportunity to create a diverse music. “It is precisely this diverse complexity that fuels our creativity. Through the eyes of an artist, all environments are points of inspiration for creation. It is a mechanism we possess to deal with the pressures of life and thus journey. The music we make gives meaning to our very existence,” says Mbappe.
Mbappé with John McLaughlin and Ranjit Barot
As a member of John McLaughlin’s band the 4th Dimension Mbappé has ringside view to observe a musician who has often declared his love for Indian music both musically and in interviews. Asked if he can discern these 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 with 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 point. Songs of joy, celebrating the 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 very unique way. And we too have a culture of preservation and continuity, passed down from generation to generation.”
Mbappé is a proficient song writer. As a vocalist composing in his own tongue, he says music in national languages can resonate with audiences worldwide. “We have to be skilled song writers, speak to the hearts and minds of our audiences. Then the language becomes merely a vehicle for our intentions. Their true meaning lies there. The literal interpretation takes a back seat.”
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. Then, I had the privilege of recording an album that Ranjit bhai put together with the late great Mandolin U Shrinivas ji, who we lost too early.”
Mbappé says he loves coming to India as well as “the people and the food. And of course, the music! Ranjit bhai has been responsible for a lot of these visits and I know that through him, I get to see the real people of India.”
(This article first appeared in Deccan Herald, March 12, 2020)