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Richard Bona Greatest Gig is as a Musician’s Musician

Richard Bona has long been one of the world’s most influential and respected musicians. It’s why interviews with him can be interrupted by calls from the likes of Quincy Jones. But a year ago, Bona, along with restaurateur Laurent Dantonio, began an endeavor that might spread his positive influence even further.
This weekend, Bona and Dantonio are celebrating the one-year anniversary of Club Bonafide on East 52nd Street in New York City, and for any business to make it that long in the Big Apple is an accomplishment worthy of a party. Tonight, Bona will be having that party as he plays with his band, Mandekan Cubano, in advance of the release of their album, Heritage, on September 16.
“It’s been a good year,” Bona said. “It’s great because it’s a nice place and a good place for musicians to perform. In order to do anything, you need to get your feet into the dirt and start doing it and understand the nature of that business. I never owned a club before, so there were some things I never saw coming.”
One was the idea that having food in a club always helps the bottom line. But food and music wasn’t exactly the marriage the Cameroon native was picturing.
“It’s something that always bothered me in clubs when people are eating while listening to music,” he said. “I’m playing a ballad and people are cracking bones and the glasses and spoons are making noise. (Laughs) Just drink and enjoy the music. But I understood. If you don’t sell food, it’s really, really hard to break even.”
Club Bonafide has some food and snacks on the menu now, and it’s just part of the growing process for the lifelong musician and year-long club owner.
“You have to be patient and let it roll,” he said. “The club is getting more and more popular now with more musicians and we’re building.”
For Bona, 48, giving musicians a place to play was the key motivation for him.
“New York needed that kind of club where young people can actually come and showcase their talent.”
I tell him of some bands I’ve talked to that only play gigs a few times a year. He jumps in immediately.
“A band that plays once every three months is not a band,” he said. “This is another reason why I opened a club, because little by little, you look at New York and there are no bands anymore. When you look at Charlie Parker and all those guys, they used to play every night. And they had an audience.”
He talks of coming to New York and playing a steady gig on Thursday nights, and “there were people there every Thursday.”
These days, those opportunities are rare, and even if open to some bands, they choose not to take them. It’s a different world, with social media often being the sole vehicle some musicians use to reach the people.
“Social media is good, but we need to perform more and more, because when we let this part of a band die, that’s it,” Bona said. And while much of his time over the years was spent in the trenches, playing live and doing studio work, he’s seen more of the other side of the business since the opening of Club Bonafide.
“You get another view as a club owner,” he said. “I was really surprised by the musicians. And it’s not their fault; they were just taught that way. The way the whole system was built, they made the system so difficult for musicians. It’s hard and sad. When Apple is done making their computer or iPhone, they sell it themselves. When Marlboro is done making its cigarettes, they sell them themselves to retailers. But musicians, when we’re done writing songs, when we’re done composing and recording, renting studios and paying musicians, mixing and mastering everything, we take the final product and go give it somebody to sell for us. And eventually, they will send you something. And you will never be the owner of your own creation. The record company will own it.”
It’s why Bona has taken the reins of his own ship, and he recommends his fellow musicians do the same thing, even if it isn’t the easiest task in the world.
“When you’re in the dark for so long, it’s hard, even when they show you the light,” he said. “I was in the cage. I decided to get out. And I never felt any better than now. It’s important to have control over your product.”
And at Club Bonafide, Bona makes sure musicians have a safe haven to ply their craft, sell their merch without a surcharge to the club, and make their own way in a tough city. That’s called putting your money where your mouth is.
“If I’m gonna do it,” Bona said. “I think I should do it right.”
Richard Bona and Mandekan Cubano play Club Bonafide in NYC on Saturday, September 10. For more information, click here