Carlo Mombelli tends the seeds of art, music and inspiration
The band leader, composer and professor encourages students to explore their own voices — at their own pace, writes Struan Douglas
In his 40-year career as a bass player, band leader and composer Carlo Mombelli has bridged gaps between genres, musicians, audiences and students.
"My whole approach is about bringing art to the institution. Critical thinking in academia is fantastic and very important for our students, but you also need practical artists in the institutions to make the connection between the critical thinking and the performance," he says.
"I have an important role to play, making sure the students find some sort of inspiration to perform their music."
Mombelli, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, uses the analogy of a gardener planting seeds.
"Everyone is different. The important part is nurturing. Teachers water the seeds with information and knowledge.
"What is difficult about an institution and learning music is that the students are expected to arrive at the same place at the same time at the same level — however, everybody is different. Each seed grows at its own pace," he says.
Mombelli has not had formal bass or composition lessons. He picked up the rudiments from listening to and transcribing his vinyl collection.
In the early 1980s, he met Johnny Fourie at a jazz competition at Sandton Sun. Fourie had been his idol and he had attended all his gigs in Hillbrow, bootlegged the shows and transcribed what they were playing.
Fourie was impressed by the 22-year-old Mombelli and offered him a spot in his band, which included Duke Makasi on saxophone and a 17-year-old Kevin Gibson on drums.
They had a gig at Spats, the nightclub in the Sandton Sun, for six nights a week over six months. Mombelli learnt music on the stage.
"We were doing an apprenticeship, a way of learning being passed on from the master to the student every day," he recalls.
"It is probably one of the greatest ways of learning. That is how music is passed down through the centuries and I hope we don’t lose that."
Fourie was generous and honest. His approach to playing guitar exemplified the power of space and silence in music.
"I have learnt from Johnny that as a band leader, one must be an inspiration and challenge your musicians to push the boundaries but recognise and appreciate the art and beauty each musician has to offer."
In 1985, Mombelli formed the band Abstractions with Fourie. They performed Mombelli’s compositions from 1985-87, played the downtown venue Jamesons and recorded with Shifty Records. Mombelli moved to Germany and landed a post at the Richard Strauss conservatory of music in Munich.
This is where he first combined his passion for composition with teaching.
"I realised that the concept of teaching is about being honest. And that is what music is. It is about something other than technique. It is about emotions," he says.
In Germany, Mombelli was exposed to some of the finest musicians in the world, performing with Egberto Gismonti in the band Riaz de Pedra and recording with saxophonists Charlie Mariano and Lee Konitz.
He formed his band Prisoners of Strange with German Wolfgang Haffner on drums, pianist Roberto Di Gioia from Italy and trombonist Adrian Mears from Australia.
The seminal session featuring several of Mombelli’s best compositions, Bats in the Belfry, was recorded live at the Bayerischen Rundfunk. It is due to be reissued on vinyl soon.
However, with two daughters growing up fast, home began to call.
Mombelli quit his teaching post and returned to SA. He reformed the Prisoners of Strange with Marcus Wyatt, Siya Makuzeni and Justin Badenhorst. Due to personality clashes, they disbanded during a Grahamstown festival.
Mombelli immediately formed the collaborative project Stories in Europe in 2010 with Berlin-based Serbian drummer Dejan Terzic and pianist Daniel Bezotti. Mbuso Khosa joined the project after meeting Mombelli at a successful jam session at the Bassline and their collaboration continues to grow from strength to strength.
"Mbuso is an incredible vocalist. He has got a different kind of feeling with music. Every gig, it could be a different melody or in a different place. He is improvising every gig."
Improvisation and storytelling are a central aspect to Mombelli’s compositional process. "Improvisation means spontaneous in the moment: right then and there. Conversation is improvisation. The composer brings a topic and gives a platform for a debate. And high-quality, interesting speakers debate with their voices."
He draws the example of one of his albums, I Pressed My Spine to the Ground. The sound of distant bells, which Mombelli had recorded in the Swiss Alps during a composition retreat, was used for the musicians to improvise over.
The recording was released on vinyl and was nominated on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction as one of the top-12 picks for 2016.
Mombelli’s forthcoming project Angels and Demons "is an exploration of the positives and negatives of everything", as he says. The collaborative performance project features young guitarist Keenan Ahrends alongside long-time collaborators Khosa, Kyle Shepherd on piano and Lungile Kunene on drums.
Angels and Demons is an expression of Mombelli’s desire to find the middle ground between opposing forces. There is a meeting between the visionary, emotional and experimental and the accessible, harmonic and educative.
The style crosses over all genres, from the technical profundity of classical to the expressive soul of jazz and the innovations of electronic.
Mombelli’s purpose with the project is to tell a story. "It is a story. At the end of a performance, the audience raptures into applause or is in dead silence because the energy of the concept of the band is spiritual. I am always trying to find the spiritual element in music."
Mombelli’s mission as a professor is an extension of his philosophy as a musician.
"Actually, when you were a child, you were who you were. The more educated in art you got, the more you were pulled away from who you really were," he says.
"What happens is, we spend the rest of our lives trying to find out who we really were, by going back to childhood.
‘Your voice, as who you were, was as a child when you didn’t think about everything. You weren’t scared to make mistakes. If you made mistakes, you laughed about it and continued. It is in our mistakes that we learn and in our mistakes, we uncover new things."
Mombelli’s approach to teaching composition is shared during a biannual post at the Swiss Basel Conservatory of Music, where he leads the master’s students from five universities in collaboration, composition and concept.
"Art must uplift you, transport you, challenge you, touch your inner being, bring some form of hope and faith and a sense that it is some sort of a miracle," he says.
• Angels and Demons Live at the Orbit on Saturday, November 4, from 8.30pm to 11.30pm.