Kai Eckhardt

Bass virtuoso talks to FBPO about his turbulent childhood, the gigs with John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Garaj Mahal and much more!

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
April 25, 2011

Kai Eckhardt is a Liberian/German bassist, well known for his work with John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham and Garaj Mahal. Over the course of his career, which has spanned some three decades, Kai has also performed and/or recorded with Trilok Gurtu, Stanley Clarke, Wayne Shorter, Patrice Rushen, Dewey Redman, Donald Byrd, Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Larry Coryell, Warren Hill, Al Di Meola, Vital Information, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and many others.

Kai is currently a professor at the Jazzschool Institute in Berkeley, CA, and frequently teaches clinics and workshops worldwide.

FBPO: Tell me about your childhood.  Was it as exciting and interesting it sounds?

KE: My childhood was more interesting than exciting, I would say.  I was born in Mainz, Germany, in 1961, the year the Wall was built. For the first six years of my life, I was raised by my German mother in absence of my father, who had gone back to his native Liberia in West Africa. Since my mother had to support both of us, she worked as a midwife on the nightshift at the university clinic in Mainz.  My mother had to find places for me to stay at night, which could be quite challenging.  The bond between her and her parents on the German side was severed the moment I arrived because they were not able bear the humiliation of a mixed race grandchild.  Today things have changed in Germany, but twelve years after the end of the Second World War, the older generation was still fixed in its ideas of race.

Strangely, my favorite babysitters during those days were a German couple, which I nicknamed Dati and Onki.  They were roughly the age of my estranged grandparents, but very loving and caring.  Dati used to be a cleaning lady for a wealthy German family and Onki was a gardener.  After the war, Onki was released from imprisonment in a Russian concentration camp and made his way home. They were the most wonderful people and treated me like their own son.

My mother did not feel the love in Germany, however, as stones flew in the direction of her and the baby carriage. She was called names by strangers until she had finally had enough.  After selling her belongings, she took me out of school and I moved with my parents to Monrovia, Liberia, where I entered the Hilton Van-Ee School.  There I spent the next four years, together with my mother and father. Unfortunately, their relationship did not last.  They loved each other deeply but could not surmount the cultural gap between Lutheran Protestant and Kru polygamist society.  My mother later remarried a Dutch man in Africa and my dad married an African woman.

FBPO: Was that around the time you returned to Germany?

KE:  Yes. At age 10, I received an invitation to go to summer school in Germany, staying at Dati and Onki’s place again. I never returned to live in Liberia, but, instead, went into foster care. From that point until graduation from high school, my life became almost normal, as I enjoyed the privileges of a solid German middle class upbringing. My skin color nevertheless kept me locked into being a curiosity in the eyes of society.

I graduated from a German high school in 1981 with a focus on social studies and the Third Reich.  I was the student with the second best grade point average of the class of ’81 and got drafted into the German army right afterwards.  With the help of my school, I conscientiously objected and went into eighteen months of social service.  My job was to take care of handicapped children at the children’s neurological institute in Mainz.

FBPO: I understand you were very involved in competitive sports in those days.  What all have you done in that area?

KE: Through middle school in Germany, I was introduced to gymnastics and, later on, to track.  I loved sports of all kinds and joined several clubs in my early teens, including basketball and canoeing. My real passion was diving, though.  My diving school was in Wiesbaden, Germany, and I went twice a week to train.  We used to drive to competitions all over the country.  It was both frightening and exciting at the same time.  There were no people of color in this sport except me.  I stood out like a pink elephant.

Thinking back, I am glad I followed my passion instead of hiding indoors out of fear of being heckled.   Once I wiped out in front a racist coach who was laughing out of control while I was in terrible pain, the typical Nazi racist attitude.  This coach had two daughters and he’d grill them so hard during training that they were in tears on a regular basis.  A few more scary injuries happened as training became more rigorous.  I decided to end my career in sports and music slowly took over.

Kai EckhardtFBPO: Tell me about your introduction to music.

KE: I fell in love with music by listening to Brit-rock of the early ’70s.  I had posters of groups like 10cc, Sweet, Slade, Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter hanging on my walls. I wanted to play electric guitar, but had no funds available to purchase one, so I took my old acoustic guitar, which I never played, and separated the neck and the mechanics.  A classmate sold me a single magnetic pickup.  With a magic marker I traced the shape of an electric guitar onto a piece of wood and cut out the shape.  The neck of the acoustic guitar was nailed to the cutout body and I attached the mechanics and the strings. The pickup was screwed onto the body and two wires were attached to the speaker of an old transistor radio, which I had opened up in the back.  It worked!

I got a great distortion sound out of my self-made guitar, which would snap like a jackknife on a regular basis because the nails would come loose and the neck would just snap off.  I’d always have a hammer handy to nail the neck back onto the board with three or four nails.

In my room, I’d escape into a fantasy world of rock and roll, playing along with a mono cassette tape deck.  In my dreams, I’d often see myself onstage, driving the audience – and the girls – wild.  I imagined myself white with blond hair, blue eyes and skinny legs.  I wanted to fit in, to belong.  The music remained, but my dream never came true.

FBPO: How did you end up a bass player?

KE: The year was 1975. I was 14 years old, going to high school in Mainz, Germany.  A friend of mine was the son of Rolf Braun, a famous celebrity and head of carnival in Mainz. Mainz is famous for its yearly carnival celebrations, poking fun at politicians with massive parades and a six-hour TV special.  For Christmas, my friend Harry set up instruments for an entire band: a drum set, a guitar, a bass and a keyboard.  I wanted to play drums, but that was his instrument. Then I wanted to play guitar but that was also taken.  Only the bass was left.  Harry said to me, “Why don’t you play the bass? It is the same as the guitar with two strings less.”  I agreed.

I would take the instrument home to practice.  It was also connected to the back of my old radio.  Trying to hand-wire the quarter-inch jack to the old transformer, I got shocked with 220 volts and almost had a seizure one day!  I fell in love with the bass, anyway.  What finally did it for me was my crush on the leather-wearing, screaming rock idol, Suzi Quatro.  I thought she was the bomb and I was motivated to practice.  My G-string was always breaking until, finally, after a year, I went to the music store and found out that the bass guitar is tuned in 4ths, not in 5ths.  I had to start from scratch after one year of intense practice!

FBPO: What brought you to the U.S?

KE:  In 1983, I left Germany for Boston to enter Berklee College of Music.  I graduated in 1987 and applied for a teaching position in the bass department.  The same week I was accepted into the faculty at Berklee, John McLaughlin showed up in Boston to look for a new bassist.  When John offered me the gig, I decided to forgo the teaching position at Berklee. Instead, I moved back to Germany, where John rehearsed with Trilok Gurtu and me before the actual tour began. Nineteen-ninety was the last year I toured with the John McLaughlin Trio.  It was a very successful run in terms of output with a fantastic album under our belts, called Live at the Royal Festival Hall.

FBPO: I know that album very well!  I love it!  What was it like working with John McLaughlin?

KE: When I auditioned for John McLaughlin, I did not know much about his music.  I knew he was famous and liked his sound on Stanley Clarke’s School Days.   Beyond that, I wanted to play with Al Jarreau.  Instead of Al, it was John who took me under his wing.  It turned out to be the most challenging learning curve ever.  I had a few months to learn the music.  There were a few charts, but mostly audio material from live gigs.

The first rehearsal was a bit discouraging because I was slow to grasp the odd meters and would get lost quite often.  After that, I stepped up the practice at home.  I kept a bucket of cold water next to the music stand to cool off my hands.  John was very patient with me and expressed his approval at the second rehearsal before the first tour.

The first gig was a nightmare. I was so nervous and barely kept it together in Reggio Emilia, Italy.  An enthusiastic audience signaled that I had done a decent job.  The following years were always challenging, but ultimately very fulfilling.  John often stressed the importance of personal integrity and self-knowledge.  On the tour bus John, Trilok and I frequently had discussions about spirituality and we read books.  One of John’s favorite books was Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda and Trilok’s favorite was a book by Ramana Maharshi, an Indian guru on whose lap he sat once as a baby.

FBPO: What happened after that?

KE:  Around 1990, my foster father Onki was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.  His wife was hopelessly overwhelmed.  The situation weighed on me heavily and, after confronting me about my increasing mental absence, John McLaughlin realized he had to let me go and replaced me with Dominique DiPiazza.  I then returned home to look after my foster parents for the next two years.  When my old man passed away after a long, painful struggle with his illnesses, his daughter moved into the house, helping care for Dati, who was in her 80s by that point.

On one of the last McLaughlin tours, I met a young lady from Brazil at Yoshi’s in Oakland.  Her name was Regina.  We later married and are still married after nineteen years. Today we live in Berkeley California, with our children Danilo, who’s now 15, and Naima, who’s 11.

FBPO: Tell me about the Billy Cobham gig.

KE: Billy Cobham came into my life much later, in the mid ’90s, after I had had moved to the USA to marry Regina.  The timing of getting that gig was impeccable.  I had been struggling a lot, playing local club gigs in the Bay Area and teaching, while trying to convert my alien status into legal residency. Cobham offered me a tour in the U.S. and Canada, which was possible with special permission from the INS, while I was waiting for my green card to process.  I needed the money desperately and was overjoyed at being able to work with such a high-level performer.

I was a fan of Cobham’s music from listening to Crosswinds, Spectrum and my all-time favorite, Live in Europe, with George Duke, one of the funkiest records ever!  Billy had a great sense of humor and I enjoyed his lightness of spirit, despite the heavy music we were performing.  Our group was called the “International Quartet.”  It featured Gary Husband on keys and drums as well as Peter Woelpl from Munich, a German homeboy!

FBPO: How about Garaj Mahal?

KE: Garaj Mahal was “born” in San Francisco in the year 2000, the brainchild of ex-KVHW drummer Alan Hertz and his high school buddy, Christian Weyers, who became the band’s first manager.  An informal jam session at the Connecticut Yankee in the city featured original members Kit Walker on keys, Alan on drums, Fareed Haque on guitars and me on bass.  Fareed was from out of town, but had some connection to Alan and Christian, who recruited him into the ensemble.  The show was well attended by a group of hardcore Grateful Dead fans who, in turn, became followers of KVHW, which stands for Kimmock (Steve), Vega (Bobby), Hertz (Alan) and White (Ray).

After Jerry Garcia died, many of the Deadheads followed Kimmock. When KVHW ended, Garaj Mahal was born.  The concert in San Francisco, in front of fifty enthusiastic hippies, spawned a national following in the course of two years.   I had the idea of asking people to submit possible band names to our e-mail discussion list, which produced 800 names in two days after the inaugural show.  The four of us each picked our top ten favorites and out of those we distilled it down to one name, “Garaj Mahal.”  The originator of this name came out of the woodwork as Ted Silverman from San Francisco, who is on our guest list for life.

FBPO: I gather it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the band.

KE: That’s an understatement!  The first years of touring were mainly done by van, up and down the West Coast.  Later, we went into Colorado and Utah, then finally all the way to New York, Canada and the South. Our gigs ranged from mainly club dates to smaller to medium-sized festivals.

After some internal dispute, Kit Walker was replaced by Fareed’s student, Eric Levy, on keys, a move I was not happy about initially, but turned out to be beneficial for the music, as Fareed and Eric where musically on the same page for the obvious reasons.  Christian Weyers was replaced by Theresa Reed as manager after the band ran into financial problems.  Regardless of the problems, Christian was the one who “broke” the band on the national scale, thus setting up a sustainable situation that lasted eleven years and is still going.

We weren’t without our challenges, though!  After enduring several personnel changes and financial hardships, I eventually took over the bank account of the LLC, changed booking agents and started to go back to the drawing board.

Luckily, substantial engagements came for all of us while the Garaj was being re-vamped.   Eric went out with Night Ranger in 2010 and Sean has a standing offer from a Miles tribute band, featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Marcus Miller.   I have been working with Trilok Gurtu, Billy Cobham and a couple of bands from the Middle East, while developing my online Mentorship Program.

Garaj Mahal has been focusing on a new recording throughout the year with a new lineup. The new Garaj Mahal is likely to re-emerge in the Fall of 2011. The new music and lineup will remain a secret for now, but the journey will continue.  We have seven albums to our name and have played approximately twelve hundred shows to date.

FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?

KE: At the moment, I am doing my taxes! Two sets, that is: family and Garaj Mahal, LLC. Major pain in the ass! Trying to stay positive, though, and get it over with.  In musical terms, the main focus is writing new music for the next Garaj record and finishing up three projects that are in the works:

One is called Blink, a duet with my wife Regina Camargo, a poet, and me, as one-man band.  It is going to be a NU-jazz ambient record, recorded and mixed in Pro Tools with various overdubs, featuring fretted, fretless and piccolo bass, guitar, keys, samples and drum machine.

Number two is a compilation of funk tunes, also done with overdubs and vocals, focusing on delivering a message via lyrics.  It covers topics such as 9/11, the will to power or the unsustainability of society as we know it.  I will have guest musicians on this one, along with overdubs of various basses.

Number three is an album of only bass solo tunes, played live without overdubs.  It’s intended to feature some bass techniques never before recorded, such as a slap version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

FBPO: I look forward to hearing that one!

KE: On a personal level, I am very involved in my children’s lives, parenting and trying to be a good husband to my wife.  I love the consistency of the family, as it grounds me with all the unpredictable changes I have been going through. My son Danilo is 15 and goes to Berkeley High.  He is a fantastic skater, producer of slick beats in FL Studio and a spirited drummer.   My daughter, Naima, is 11, plays the piano, dances flamenco and keeps us entertained with her hilarious personality.  My wife Regina is a dedicated feminist from Sao Paulo, Brazil, passionate about the cause of immigrant women in the Bay Area. She writes wonderful poetry.  My dream is to come out with the whole family on stage.  My family is somewhat terrified of my vision, but hey … it would be a hellava fun thing to do!

FBPO: I understand you’re very active with social justice and environmental issues.

KE: Always was and always will be.  This world would be a much better place if we weren’t so isolated in our heads and would recognize more of our underlying unity.  The class division in society is a real energy drainer and leads to so much suffering on both sides.  The rich suffer the most when they come to life’s end because the unavoidable loss of all material power leaves them with nothing to look forward to.   The poor find salvation in their death, but suffer a painful degrading life.  Two sides of a coin.  Avoidable misery.  Being a musician I constantly migrate between the world of the rich and that of the poor.

FBPO: That’s very profound.

KE: My studio is in one of Oakland’s most violent districts.  Candlelight vigils for gunned down youngsters are common sights on my block and I have been dodging bullets to get to work.  I live in a wonderful neighborhood in North Berkeley and commute to the ghetto on my electric bike on a daily basis.   This schism caused me to visit neighborhood meetings, organize gigs for the homeless and attend city council meetings.

I have gained more hope in recent years for our society as I have met amazing people who are real change makers in the wake of my activist engagement.  I have brought the music into these areas of life and found that people are very receptive to what I do.

I played solo bass shows, leading into the presentations at the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California, and have been invited to the founding conference of “Green for All” at the Garrison Institute in New York state.  At that gathering, sixty major players in the activist scene of the U.S. converge to hash out a plan and address such issues as mass extinction, global warming and the very scary reality of an invisible “tipping point” for our ecosystem.

FBPO: What lies ahead for you in your career?

KE: The next landmark will be the Victor Wooten bass and nature camp, which I am looking forward to.  Victor is a good friend and I am inspired by his vision, dedication and kindness of heart.  I am happy to be invited back as a teacher this year.

Right afterwards, Sean Rickman and I will fly to Germany to play four shows around the Frankfurt Musicmesse, teaming up with German guitarist Torsten de Winkel, who is currently learning some Garaj Mahal material.  In Germany, I am getting some work done on my first-ever signature bass, the Malindi 5-string from Kenya.  It is the first electric bass out of Africa, hand painted by Africans according to motifs found on the Masai warrior shield.   It is an amazing instrument that sounds transparent and is light as a feather.

Right after the Messe Frankfurt, Sean will return to the U.S. and I will take the train to Switzerland to perform with an Indian all-star band featured on Swiss television. The program is in the city of Aarau called Jazzaar.  Upon completion in mid-April, I will record and album in San Francisco with Turkish fretless guitar genius Cenk Erdogan and a wonderful Turkish singer.   In May, the Colorado Bass bash is on, featuring Chuck Rainey, Doug Johns and some other very talented cats.

After that we are looking at the next Garaj Mahal album and a show with the Valence Project, featuring San Francisco guitarist Gregory James and Brain from Guns ‘N Roses.  I’ll also be doing a show with the band Four on the Floor, featuring Linda Tillery, Barbara Higbie and George Brooks, then a tour with Eastmania in Australia, featuring Billy Cobham on drums.  Then I’ll be doing a residency in Germany at the Mannheim Pop Akademie.
While all the live stuff is going on, I am taking time every day to mentor my online students, teach my students in Oakland and upgrade my video database.  Not much time to be lazy and that’s okay with me for now.  I used to play with Aziza Mustafa Zadeh from Azerbaijan, who used to say, “I can sleep when I’m dead!”

FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?

KE: A floating spirit in the universe with no interest for the material world, with the exception of occasional temptations by an hourglass shape of the female form.

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