Why Playing Bass Can Open Doors Into Playing Music From Many Cultures

Luna Kalamata go crazy

Music is basically oom-pah or oom-pah-pah and we bassists are responsible for the oom. Truth is in most styles of music it’s pretty similar. We play roots and roots and fifths in so many types of music.

It took me ages to realise that the skill in playing bass often came from playing the simple well rather than the complex adequately. The subtlety and sophistication comes in shape and tone of the notes and their length and dynamic shape. We are sound architects.

Bass is a listening mindset and a role where we endeavour to be as supportive as possible. This active listening and making things sound great is what makes many bassists excellent producers and it can also allow us to fit in seamlessly to many, many styles of music; much more so I’d argue than pianists, saxophonists, violinists, trumpeters etc.

I was excited growing up to see a page reproduced from Coltrane’s notebook of exotic scales he’d transcribed from hours of listening to musical styles from around the world. The exotic can be very exciting but musicians have to study hard and immerse themselves if they’re not going to sound patronising in a musical context from another culture. Respect for that culture and music is essential.

So when I get asked to play Romany music, or Turkish pop or Highlife I immerse myself into the music and listen actively for weeks until I have at least a feel for where the music is coming from.

I’ve been so lucky to have had opportunities to have played music from so many cultures. I’ve also spent many months or years studying musics that I love and have never had a chance to play: Middle Eastern music and North African Rai for example but they all saturate into the way I play jazz; as does the time I’ve spent immersed in Indian music.

As well as jazz, soul, reggae, soca, folk, rock, gospel, funk, free improv and the like I’ve had the chance to perform Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Klezmer and Roma music and music and musicians from Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungaria and Romania.

London is just the ideal place to live to inhabit all these musical cultures too.

Excuse me, I have to go learn some Hawaiian music for a gig next week!

Oh, just time for a recommended site:
Maqam World is dedicated to helping musicians understand the maqam or modal system used in classical Arabic music.

14 thoughts on “Why Playing Bass Can Open Doors Into Playing Music From Many Cultures

    • Thanks Matt, yes music has been a way into many cultures for me. My interest in languages and their interrelationship has helped too but mostly I just love people.

  1. Great post, Phil! I feel much the same way. As bassists, we have the privilege of being able to provide a foundation for many different musical scenarios. It is a challenge to find ourselves in situations which might be somewhat outside of our comfort zone, while still having to bridge cultures and make everything work. Good bass players seem to thrive on those challenges. As you say, what we do always gets back to some form of “oom”!

    • Thanks John. I got the oompah concept from an interview Bass Player did with Abe Laboriel. It has really stuck with me. Sometimes as a bassist I get too hung up on trying to play the pah-pah!

      Mind you, sometimes with this Balkan stuff it’s Oom-pah, pah, pah, pu….

  2. Hey great post! I think this explains why I have so much trouble finding the right bassist. I need someone who can play the “pah-pah” occasionally and doesn’t mind me playing the “oom.” Seems everyone is one or the other.

    Ah well! And good advice on learning music from different ethnicities, too. Immerse yourself – that’s the key.

    – Neil

    • Thanks Neil!

      Yes, I get too hung up trying to do both sometimes. It comes from practising bass alone. I reached a point where I overcomplicated my playing because I would be hearing all the chord subs in my head and trying to hard to make the bass ‘interesting’ by itself. Sometimes the simplicity of the bass allows the harmonic audacity of the chords or the soloist to sound even more audacious rather than diluting them.

      It’s just a matter of finding the right balance I guess. I dig playing the ‘pah’ part too, that’s why solo bass is so much fun. And even though I might play simple lines in some of these styles I am shedding the melodies at home all the time and grabbing any solo I can get. It’s a lot of fun playing this Balkan, Greek and Turkish music for example, and the Klezmer stuff because it’s mostly already a cross cultural fusion. The modes they use in Greece, they also use in Turkey and across the middle east.

      That’s one thing I really learned playing African music – that these guys from Ghana or wherever would be influenced by music from all over Africa and the diaspora of African music – especially the Afro-Cuban and funk things and that you could cross pollinate musics without diluting them.

  3. Phill: There is an art on bass players and keys players playing well 2gether – as mastered by Zawinul & his bassists …
    Neil: Yes. You see it in other groups as well, but the idea is the re-enforce eachother, as opposed to stepping on eachother.

    Phil: it’s all about the listening. Bassists hate playing w guitarists and keys players who unthinkingly plod all over bass register but music is at heart always a conversation and bass is a function not always nec covered by bass guitar/upright bass.

    Neil: Yes again! At the piano it’s great to not even have to think about the bass register – you’ve got it covered. As a keyboard/synthesizer player however, it becomes trickier. What I’m doing is orchestration – and one of the sounds I like most (as an “orchestrator”) is the sound of a synthesizer and bass guitar together. Call me old school, but i just love it.

    Also, with prudent use of drones, loops and other such devices, the bass can be freed up to add more melodic support. I find in an electric trio format this is essential. A bassist who only “holds down the bass” dosen’t add enough sonic character to the overall sound of the band. I need someone who is ready, willing and able to: a) double melodies b) play contrapuntal lines and c) fill generously, though not excessively. IMHZO, Zawinul is very good at finding these cats….
    It comes down to having an open mind, knowledge of what is possible – and being willing to change what you’re doing in a moment if it’s not working towards the overall sound.

    My, have I gone on too long?

    • No not at all!

      I love it that we’re getting so much debate/agreement on this.
      True words, Neil, true words.
      I play mostly in a trio format and find my bassplaying necessarily very different to when there are more instruments. I am a musician and a bass player and though many bassists specialise in bass function and creating the kind of momentum great basslines create; guys like me adore playing over a bass drone.

      As I tried to put across on Twitter, there is a dualism about bass.

      (a) bass function as played by anybody – some of the best bassists are keyboard players – guys like Larry Young, Joey deFrancesco, Jimmy Smith, Joe Zawinul. To play bass function well you have to understand bass and how it works. Many guys think they can play bass (often guitarists) but when they play it, it doesn’t have the momentum, subtlety and groove that bass guitarists and upright players can bring. At the same time Jimi Hendrix and Prince are among two of my favourite players when they play bass guitar so that ain’t necessarily so.

      (b) Bass is the name of an instrument or family – bass guitars, double basses. Although the instruments are designed for bass function, the sky is the limit. Barry Guy, Michael Manring, Steve Lawson and others have proved that.

      So bassists I feel have to be mindful of this and decide who they want to be. If you’re going to play low end only and stick to the bottom 4 frets there’s plenty of work in that. If you’re going to be purely a sonic innovator there amazing potential for the bass. But most of us want to do a little of both. I’ve messed around with keyboards, guitar and piccolo bass for similar reasons.

      Going back to the blogpost though, it is that awareness of bass function, listening sensibility and supportive approach that allows us bassists to play in so many contexts easily. Then again, I take your point that though we can do that because we know how simple works – as soon as we’re immersed our ears are absorbing all the melodic, textural and harmonic ideas of the music and creating our own individual approaches.

  4. Very well expressed article and love the lively discussion.

    I don’t play bass, and hardly can call myself a guitar player, but as a keen listener, both to music and people, those bands that really work have a bass player (usually the bass player) or somebody that serves the music. That’s what I hear when you write: it seems to me you strive to do what is right for the music. Above all, that is a commitment to listening.

  5. Right on Phil! Nice post! I really relate to what you said about bassists fitting in over a wide spectrum of styles, I played in an Andean Band, Son/Salsa bands, a Steel Pan band, Nuevo Cancion, not to mention Blues, Jazz, Reggea, Folk, Rock, and Gospel bands, and though, like you said, immersion is essential, I felt like the job was similar in each situation, at least as far as A. root responsibility and B. ultra sensitive listening/supportability. I also think that bass opens so many doors for bass players because, simply, there are fewer of us! It takes a really special/rare kind of personality to decide to support/facilitate music by playing bass. I’m actually in the middle of writing a blog about surviving as a musician, and one of the things I give credit for my being able to do so is that I play the bass. I always thought people were joking when they said, “you’re starting upright huh? well, you’ll always have a gig!” But it’s real, everyone needs a bass around to have a band. I wrote a post for Bass Guitar Blog, about the role of bass, and it coincides with a lot of the points you bring up on your wonderful post here, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on it.


    Really enjoyed the post and discussion over here, great job Phil!

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