Tiki is Richard Bona’s fourth album of jazzy world music—a stew of sounds from all over the African Diaspora filtered through the bass player’s individual sensibility. Here, Bona’s net takes in American soul, Afro-Cuban grooves, samba, Indian pop, as well as a gentle Afro-pop sound. In short, it’s a record that is all over the place and, therefore, no place at all.
Tying it together is Bona’s supple electric bass playing and his dry, pleasant tenor, singing in Douala, his native language from Cameroon. This through-line, however, is a thin reed at times, with Bona overshadowed by guest stars and shifting contexts.
The US version of Tiki starts with “Please Don’t Stop”, a ‘70s lite-soul groove featuring John Legend as vocalist. It’s a tasty little number, part Stevie Wonder and part Astrud Gilberto, but nothing earth-shaking. A tossed-off little funk tune with some horn licks, it still overwhelms much of the rest of what follows it. After Legend’s stylish and sly singing gets in your ear, Bona’s modest, often wispy throat seems second best.
In context, it’s pleasant. “Esoka Bulu (Night Whisper)” is a gentle jazz tune in waltz time that lets Bona’s singing come across as both modest and precise. And some of the quiet ballads—“Kivu” and “Nu Sango”—suggest how much fun it would be to have Bona over to your house for dinner, playing you a little something after dessert.
But the bulk of the record has a more schizophrenic nature. “Dipama” is pleasant little ditty—a below average James Taylor song with a Mike Stern guitar lead and African lyrics—followed by a title track that shifts from African groove to Indian pop (Susheela Raman on vocals) to a half-hearted rap by Davi Vieiria. The combination makes you want to shrug with musical confusion.
Not that Bona’s talents aren’t real, or that his wide-ranging interests aren’t genuine. Playing with the Zawinful Syndicate or with countless other artists, Bona has been a clever chameleon who adds a variety of outstanding colors. But here, the kaleidoscope has to take center stage, and our attention wanders off. The best tunes are not the most elaborate, and so the little gems are lost on beach of pleasant-but-forgettable world-pop.
Take Bona’s take on Jaco Pastorius’s “Three Women”. Jaco is plainly a hero to Bona the Bass Player, and understandably so. Pastorius changed the instrument forever and he was a key member of Weather Report, arguably the first jazz group to bring a global view to its modern jazz. But this arrangement—mainly a chart for a double string quartet by Gil Goldstein—is three minutes of gentle, too-easy strings, supplemented by Bona’s best Jaco impersonation. Lovely? Sweet? Forgettable. The strings return to more aggressive effect on “Samarouma”, where Bona sounds a bit more like Milton Nasciemento, but it’s hard to imagine this track lighting anyone on fire either.
The heart of the record is more likely to sit in tracks like “Ba Senge”, where Bona simply sings over a little funk groove for Rhodes, bass, and drums. It’s not much either, but it sounds genuine and organic—the African sounds bubbling through in the guise of Bona’s new American home. There’s no denying it: Bona is mainly selling a canny blend of world music and smooth jazz, a fusion blend that can’t help but seem like Weather Report Lite, or perhaps a more exotic take on Michael Franks or Kenny Rankin. A series of pastel gestures spiced with a dash of African spice, Tiki remains overpleasant throughout, not daring something bigger or wilder or more risky.
On the cover, Richard Bona smiles and looks really cool. You want to like him. You do like him. If “Calcadao de Copacabana” followed you around as you strolled the sidewalks of your town, you would have a hip little bossa soundtrack. But it’s mostly background music for a Ten Thousand Villages store, not a pulse to actually live by.
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