Having lived in Johannesburg for about six years now, learning to live in this so called “concrete jungle” that is often labelled as “soulless”, I deciding to find ways of making Joburg what I want it to be for me, rather than what it is labelled as. So I found my YES to Life in Johannesburg and embarked on a mission to discover what happens in town on weekends, weekday evenings and scheduled events, big and small.
On my quest to diversify my experience of Johannesburg, I came across the The Lab of Learning at the Bassline, Newtown, on Wednesdays at 8.00. I had heard of the Bassline many times and for various reasons, and I had only been there once for one event during the Joy of Jazz Festival. So reluctantly, I went to a quiet and dark looking Bassline.
On stage was a man by the name of Carlo Mombelli, whom, as I quickly learnt, was the leader. But what caught my attention first was what he did with an ordinary 4-string guitar.
Carlo Mombelli brings that instrument to life. He doesn't just play it. He gently beats it up. He scratches the strings with his nails. He squeezes it. He pulls, pushes and shakes it. And sometimes, he uses it with instruments made out of scrap metal to produce strange effects to makes unbelievable sounds. On stage, his relationship with an ordinary base guitar is evoking. He makes it sound alive, with ordinary and strange sounds, sending those listening to deep places of relaxation and awakening them, sometimes both at the same time. I had to remind myself several times that it was just a bass guitar in the hands of a bass guitarist.
Then I discovered that Carlo Mombelli is a legend in music and music education, mostly known around the world for what he does with a bass guitar. A lecturer of Music at Wits University and very highly educated musician, he strikes most not with his fame, skills or achievements, but his humility.
Carlo opens the show with his own original compositions, with talented musician whom he sometimes throws in the deep end on stage. Encouraging, teaching, conducting and nurturing, Carlo partners with them for a few pieces enjoyed by a rather ridiculously small audience for a performer of his caliber. But the size of the audience is evidently not his preoccupation, as he enjoys the music, giving 100% anyway! And ‘ridiculously small’…well, that is my judgement!
At the break, Carlo humorously introduces the jam session of the Lab of Learning with almost the same words every week: “All styles of music are welcome, and treated with respect in this place. This is for musicians, professional and amateurs, and anyone who wakes up in the morning and wants to be a musician. Just write in this book your name, your instrument, the style of music you want to play, we will do something with it for you” Holding up an ordinary notebook, he repeats: “Any style, any level!”
He often adds that it is not an open mike karaoke session. As the break ends, he looks at the book to see who brought what for the jamming, creating a program. Then the music starts. Simple, and complex at times. Every sound is heard, processed, coloured, and complimented to fit somewhere in waves. Carlo is the cook, as he once said of himself, and all the available ingredients in the room are used. And mix them all is what he does!
Very few performing contexts are devoid of the ego. In this place, nobody is crushed! Everyone willing finds their space!
As an amateur drummer, I once offered a piece of Rwandan traditional music. Just before the preceding piece ended, Carlo came to me and whispers in my ear to bring in my beat to merge with the piece 'so that they cross somewhere'. How? I had no idea. So I went, picked up the sticks, listened a little bit, and just started at his signal. Before I knew it, an electric guitarist, two percussionists, a pianist, a violinist, two vocalists and Carlo Mombelli himself on the bass and conducting, bringing them in one by one. Then he brought in everyone else in the audience, clapping with their hands. The Rwandan tradition beat became a great piece of jazz, with the vocalists spontaneously interpreting a famous jazz song, which I felt to my core. All I had to do was offer the traditional Rwandan beat on drums, and seamlessly, both pieces with different styles merged to become one long piece of relaxing music.
Playing with anyone who is willing, Dr. (yes, Dr!) Carlo Mombelli is so down to earth, and so is his music. One can easily forget that it is the legend among bass guitarists who has a topnotch band in South Africa and an orchestra in Europe, and has composed for and performed with numerous household names! The vibe in the venue is deeply felt, and strangely, one doesn't even need to hear or see to have it penetrate through the skin. You just need to be there, for only ten rand at the door.
It is not only the quality of music, but also the reality of the willingness to offer and to receive that draws one into the experience of doing with whatever is available and creating beauty with it all. A one man/woman act with a strange or ordinary instrument and an open heart soon becomes a two, three, six, nine or twelve piece band. Those who are truly awake can observe as a piece of music evolve and learn one or two lessons in quality leadership, follower-ship, facilitation, gracious ‘going with the flow’, intuitive course-correction and spontaneous endings and beginnings from all involved in the creation.
And before you know it, the evening is gone!
I have been there several times, and each time, there is something special that seems to be making it better and better. Perhaps it has to do with my increased receptivity as encourage there, opening up to more and more of what is on offer from anybody, any style, at any level.
I once randomly asked why there are not many more people of Johannesburg at the Bassline on Wednesday evenings, and one of the singers retorted – “People are busy!” Well, I put it to you, busy people of Joburg, I can’t think of a better way to unwind, chill and relax to be ready for the following day in the middle of a busy week than Carlo’s improvisations with all that makes a sound in the room!
Thank you Dr. Carlo Mombelli and those who contribute to the Learning Lab at the Bassline for making Joburg soulful!
Looking forward to next Wednesday!
For more on Carlo: http://www.music.org.za/artist.asp?id=202
The Bassline in Newtown: http://goo.gl/XxWDV1
The Bassline in Newtown: http://goo.gl/XxWDV1
Regular opening band: Carlo Mombelli (bass), Lungile Kunene (drums), Gabriel montgomery (piano)