Bakitihi Kumalo was the first African bass player to reach prominence in the U.S. and worldwide, through his stunning fretless work on Paul Simon’s landmark album Graceland [1986, Warner Bros.]. In subsequent years, Kumalo has been a tireless supporter and promoter of his fellow African bassists, leading to this Bass Magazine conversation series in which Bakithi chats with his fellow plucking plainsmen. First up is Armand Sabal-Lecco, whom Kumalo credits as the second African bass player to follow him to the U.S. and the world stage, via Paul Simon’s album The Rhythm of the Saints [1990, Warner Bros.]. Since then, Sabal-Lecco has made his mark as a bassist and composer with such artists as Stanley Clarke, John Patitucci, the Brecker Brothers, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Stewart Copeland, Al DiMeola, and Sir George Martin. Armand also formed Mass Mental with Robert Trujillo and has his own band, Positive Army.
Armand, what part of Africa are you from, and what was some of the first music you heard?
Armand Sabal-Lecco I was born in Ebolowa, Cameroon, in Central West Africa. As far back as I can remember, I was hearing both local music and music from the outside world. At a very young age I became interested in the traditional music from all of the towns in the region. Cameroon has 400 different dialects, and each dialect can carry at least three distinct styles of music. Pygmy music from the east forest of Cameroon particularly blew my mind, and still does; it’s some of the most complex music I’ve ever heard. In Cameroon back then, after the 1 PM news on the national radio station, they would play traditional music from remote villages discovered by anthropologists, from 2 PM to 5 PM. On the other hand, you would hear jazz, classical, and Western popular music on the radio, on records, or in movies. Yaoundé, where I grew up, is a big city with people from many different origins, so you’re exposed to and learn about a lot of styles of music.
Bakithi Kumalo In South Africa, the radio and record stores were controlled by the system, so we were only hearing music from Europe and the U.S. If you wanted to hear traditional music, you had to go out to the townships in Zululand. What instrument did you start on, and how did you get to bass?
ASL I tried guitar first, but my first serious instrument was drums. I was into Billy Cobham and Mike Clark from Herbie Hancock’s band, as well as the traditional music I was studying. But I only dabbled a bit in bass, because Cameroon is very bass-centric. My older brother, Roger Sabal-Lecco, and Vicky Edimo — who was from the Douala side of Cameroon, where I believe Richard Bona grew up and where Etienne Mbappé is from — were the two players at the helm of a bass-heavy movement in the ’70s that mixed Afro-pop with virtuoso bass playing. They created a sort of Afro jazz–soul, an all-inclusive world gumbo! That was my first major bass influence. Anyway, I was still playing drums and began noticing that by the time I packed up my kit after shows, everyone else in the band had left with all the girls. So I decided to move to bass permanently!
What was your first bass?
ASL I didn’t get my own bass until I was living in Paris. I did what Bakithi did and went to the music stores to practice. I’d say, “Can I see that Fender?” And they’d say, “Are you interested in buying it?” And I’d say, “Of course” — but I didn’t have a dime in my pocket! I’d come in and “try” all the basses while I practiced, but I was scratching them up. Finally, they caught on and tossed me out. Then someone gave me an Italian ’60s Eko bass, which I somehow managed to pull a sound out of. Later, when I got into Jaco, I forked the frets out. My first good bass was an ’80s Ibanez Roadstar with a single humbucker pickup.
BK That happened to me. My music store had a line of fretted basses and a fretless on the end that no one played. I’d go in and practice on a fretted bass, and when no one was looking I’d pick up the next one. Finally, they said, “You come in here all the time and play all the basses, but you don’t buy anything. Go play the fretless.” Eventually I bought it [his fretless Washburn that he played on Graceland] because it was cheap. I’d take it on gigs and the band would say, “Something is wrong —the tuning is bad!” Or, “That’s for jazz, not our music.” Then I went to Zimbabwe and Zululand for a couple of years and figured out that this instrument was my voice.
Who else beyond your brother and Vicky Edimo were among your bass influences?
ASL Two other great bassists from Cameroon: Alhadji Touré, an excellent makossa player, and Dikoto Mandengue, who had a totally different, more sober style. Another favorite was Atebass from the bikutsi band Les Tétes Brulées. From abroad, there are so many, but the first shock was Stanley Clarke — I’d never heard such a clear sound and such phenomenal playing — and then, Jaco was huge for me. Also Cachao, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Paul Jackson, Larry Graham, Anthony Jackson, Louis Johnson, Abraham Laboriel, and of course, James Jamerson; his playing is a master class in architecture. But it’s funny; when I was a drummer is when I listened mainly to bass players. Once I became a bass player, I listened mainly to drummers. The master Senegalese drummer Doudou N’diaye Rose is a very important influence, but the meat of my rhythmic concept is Pygmy and bantú spiritual music from the east and south jungles of Cameroon.
The two of you first met for Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints album. What was your impression of each other?
ASL I first heard Bakithi on Graceland, and I was blown away. His playing made so much sense; it was the glue that held everything together, but also the icing on top. That was my introduction to that style of South African bass. Bakitihi was storytelling — he was playing where he was from. It was all about emotion, so when he plays he disappears in the music, and in that context, when you disappear in the music, that’s when you are great. Therefore, when I finally met him I couldn’t simply say, “Show me this or that lick.” It would be like him showing me that his pants were blue; it’s completely out of the context of his whole story and why he played the lick.
BK It was the same for me. When I first met Armand and heard him play, I was floored. I thought, This is the other Africa that I’ve never seen or heard before. First, it was his rhythmic approach, and then also his notes — they came in places you didn’t expect them!
“Spirit Voices” and “Born at the Right Time” are the two Saints tracks you’re both on.
ASL We were never actually in the studio together. Those two tracks were the result of Paul’s editing choices. Paul was moving forward with new rhythms he’d heard in Brazil, but in seeking the origins of that music, he discovered it linked to music from Cameroon. Paul had met the late guitarist Vincent Nguini, who was from Obala, Cameroon, through Hugh Masekela in 1987, and he put him in charge of the Saints sessions. Vincent was the one who brought me in. During a lot of the sessions, Vincent and I would sing the Cameroonian traditional patterns to the Brazilian percussionists, who would play them on their instruments in their style, which really completed the circle.
Bakitihi, the subsequent Saints tour was pretty much your only extended time not being in Paul’s band.
BK It was a transition period for me, but it made sense because with Vincent and Armand speaking the same musical language, it allowed them to more easily provide what Paul was looking for. Graceland was over, and while it was a great album, The Rhythm of the Saints was musically deeper.
Armand, you had to play a lot of Bakithi’s bass lines on the tour.
ASL Yes, and I couldn’t wait to play them! I had some different basses, but I had to get a good fretless for the songs Bakitihi really sang on.
BK I was way in the back for the  Central Park concert, and I heard you, and I wanted to come closer to see what your were doing! You and Steve Gadd and the percussionists sounded unbelievable. You were playing the parts from the Graceland album but using your own completely different approach. It was like, if you had recorded the songs originally, this is what you would have played. And then when I came back in the band, I had to learn that approach! Paul said, “You’ve played these songs the same way for a while now — why don’t you listen to what Armand did and apply some of that.” Which was great. It was something fresh for me to do, and it gave the songs new life.
How would you two describe the characteristics of African bass playing?
ASL I’m glad you said “African.” I always refer to it as Africa as a whole, because it’s the same heartbeat everywhere, and the borders are simply the scars of recent history. Although the differences are largely promoted, the natural and common approach is quite similar throughout the continent’s various cultures. Sure, there are different styles and specificities according to regions and countries, just as there are different musical styles in regions and states here in America. Overall, though, I would start by saying that African bass is very melodic. Melody has a prominent role. Unconfined to the lowest notes, it punctuates the whole arrangement and converses with the singer while keeping the dancer turned on. This is because the bass isn’t the only thing holding it down and keeping the pulse — the percussion does that, the guitar does that. In African music, the bottom is up and means much more than the top. So the bass, being more free, gets to and has to move around.
BK I think a big reason the bass is melodic is because it’s coming from the voices, the singing. When I got it together on fretless, I was thinking like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The root is sung by the voices, so the bass can double that, but it’s also free to find its own space. Like Armand said, the bottom means more than the top. African audiences listen to the bass and can sing the line the bass is playing.
How about on the rhythm side?
BK Rhythm is the other key component. In addition to the traditional drumming, I think some of it comes from the languages, which all have a lot of rhythm — like Zulu, which has a clicking sound in their vocabulary. There’s a side of African bass that’s like a tuned drum or a bass kalimba, with short, muted notes playing traditional patterns.
ASL Exactly — African bass ranges from very melodic to very rhythmic, sometimes in the same song, sometimes in the same figure. I think this is because to the African ear, rhythms are melodies and vice versa.
BK One other factor in African bass is the lack of a formal music education, like learning Western theory. I learned my instrument on the street, by listening. So when I played, it wasn’t as much about the notes and the chords as it was the sound and feel. Maybe I’m hearing an accordion or kalimba in my head, and here is how I’m feeling the music.
ASL African bass players are raw but sophisticated at the same time. Many don’t know by name what a 7/8 is, yet that’s what they’ve been playing all day. They turn out to be more interested in playing than analyzing.
Armand, how would you describe your bass concept?
ASL For me, the bass is like a grand piano or a big band. I don’t even think of it as a bass. I have the whole big band in my head, and I accentuate what I need to accentuate on the fingerboard. I’m the conductor, and I call on different parts of the orchestra based on the needs of the music I’m playing. I was also fortunate that when I came here and got to collaborate with jazz artists like Stanley Clarke, Don Grusin, Michael Brecker, or Herbie Hancock, they allowed me to write and arrange for their ensembles. That enabled me to paint a much better picture than I could have painted just on bass.
BK Did you apply your concept of learning music from its roots when you came to the States?
ASL I did, but my career started in Europe way before the States; I like to have a good understanding of where a style came from and where it went. From there, I would adapt that to my approach, which is what African musicians do. Understanding the intimate origins of what I play allows me to mix the ingredients in the kitchen rather than at the table. I’ve gotten to play rock, funk, jazz, country, blues, folk, and I dig it all. If it has human emotion in it, I can relate. I don’t have boxes for styles. What’s also cool is the ethnic spin that creeps up on the music we play. For example, the other day I heard Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs” [Foot Loose & Fancy Free, 1977, Warner Bros.], which is Carmine Appice playing straight rock drums and Phil Chen playing with a reggae feel on bass, and the groove is just phenomenal — fat and round. So whether it’s a Chinese-Jamaican bass player with Rod Stewart or you or me with Paul and the other artists we’ve played with, we’re all contributing to the American book of bass, and that’s a deep honor and a full circle.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned here?
ASL It’s like what Bakithi was saying. A guy like Paul doesn’t care about what circus technique or stellar harmonic knowledge you have. He’s not interested in “chess on a track.” He wants you to make him feel something, make a connection; that’s all he cares about. I got my theory and my reading together, and I then I realized the higher the tier, the simpler and more natural things become. That shocked me on my journey. People like Paul or Ringo Starr or Peter Gabriel just want you to express yourself and move them emotionally. They want to hear your life; they want you to tell your story. So if Bakitihi or I go in and try to tell Stanley’s or Marcus’ story, well, they could have called those guys. They called you instead, because they wanted you and how you hear their music. It’s all about being yourself and telling your true and unique story.
BK That’s when the music gets deeper and goes beyond the page. But music is changing now, because there are shortcuts. You can go to YouTube and slow things down, so there’s less creativity and more imitation. You end up playing from memory instead of in the moment. To become a top player, you have to do more than just play well — you have to create musical bass lines in the studio, and be able to create on the fly, live. It’s a constant state of listening, reacting, and creating.
ASL You’re right; there’s a new generation of bassists who fall in love with YouTube and then come here and go to music schools where the same formatted curriculum is drilled into everyone. Well, to me, what’s important is that if a player came all the way from Africa or even all the way from Mars to improve his or herself, they come with a story. It would be enriching to lean in and explore that and help it blossom, rather than delete and reboot. Often, a rigorous school background emphasizes playing what you learned, while African music emphasizes playing what you feel. It makes you express your own feelings within the context.
What is upcoming for you?
ASL I’m working on another solo record with Positive Army, which is coming along great. I’m doing some writing for Triangle, the band with Senri Kawaguchi and Philippe Saisse, and also writing for Stanley [Clarke] and for Bunny Brunel’s next all-star bass album. And Mass Mental is working on some music for an animated film project.
BK Thank you for chatting with us today, Armand.
ASL You were the first to shine bright with African bass on this side of the world, and you remain an inspiration. It’s my honor to be the first bassist interviewed in this important series.
Bakitihi Kumalo Brubaker and Warrior bass guitars, NS Design double bass, Kala U-Bass; La Bella strings; PJB amps
Armand Sabal-Lecco ’79 Music Man Sabre, ’74 Fender Jazz Bass, ’70 Alembic Series II, ’80 Alembic piccolo bass; Dunlop strings; Ampeg amps
Bakithi Kumalo After All These Years [2016, J&D Music]; Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger [2016, Concord]
Armand Sabal-Lecco Bunny Brunel & Friends, Bass Ball [2017, Brunel Music]; Jaco (Soundtrack) [2015, Iron Horse Entertainment/Mass Mental]