by Atane Ofiaja
MONDAY, AUGUST 13
Once in a while, a musician comes on the scene and changes everyone’s perceptions of a particular style of music. Lionel Loueke, whom Jon Pareles from the New York Times described as a gentle virtuoso, has done that with jazz. I recently sat down with him for an interview that I can only describe as refreshing and illuminating.
TIA: You’re originally from Benin. For people who don’t know more about your back story, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Lionel Loueke: Yes. I’m Lionel Loueke, and I’m from Benin, West Africa. I started playing percussion like most of the kids in West Africa when I was around 9. At 17 I started to play guitar. My older brother was a guitar player, so he was my first inspiration. I was totally self-taught, so I did a lot of transcription by ears. You know in Africa, when you don’t have the technology to do everything, you do what you can. For example, I was using half dead batteries to slow down the speed of my cassette player so that I could catch up with notes. I worked like that for a while, with guitars that had a string or two missing. So that’s how I started pretty much. I played African pop, music from Franco and Tabu Ley (Rochereau), and stuff from Nigeria like King Sunny Adé and Fela.
TIA: How did you discover jazz?
Lionel Loueke: Through a friend of my brother who had been on vacation in France. He came back to Benin with a George Benson LP, Weekend in L.A. It was a whole new thing for me, especially for someone who was playing African music. I started doing some transcriptions from that, but he [Benson] is a virtuoso, so I had to slow down the speed to learn the notes.
TIA: Benin has a rich musical history, and that comes across in the music you play. Obviously, you play jazz, but you infuse what you play with African rhythms. So while you may be described as a jazz guitarist, stylistically, you’re different from other jazz guitarists; at least the typical western jazz guitarist. How would you describe your music? Would you call it jazz, or would you describe it in a broader way?
Lionel Loueke: That’s a very good question. For me, it’s just music to start with. It’s music with different influences. Jazz, classical and the African influence of course. I think my music is the product of globalization, so it’s global music.
Lionel Loueke: I was playing with the great trumpet player, Terence Blanchard. He was on Blue Note when I joined the band. I did two CDs (Bounce in 2003 and Flow in 2005) with him on the label. The big boss at Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall, came to me and said he would love to hear what I was doing on my own, so I sent him a demo of my compositions. I didn’t hear anything for like a year, but when I moved here I received a call from Blue Note to come to the office and play, and that’s how it happened.
TIA: Karibu was your first album on Blue Note. You worked with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. How was that experience?
Lionel Loueke: Man! It was a great experience, especially knowing that Herbie and Wayne haven’t been guest artists on someone’s CD in the last 30 years before that. I guess if I knew that, I would have probably been even shyer to ask them, but I found that out later. They both are my mentors, and I was honored. I’m always honored to play with them. I couldn’t ask for better. I mean, having both Herbie and Wayne on your first Blue Note CD!
TIA: After Karibu, you released Mwaliko. What was the difference between Mwaliko and Karibu?
Lionel Loueke: Mwaliko was more dual setting oriented and more vocal oriented. I had more singers this time around. I had Angélique Kidjo(Benin), Richard Bona (Cameroon) and Esperanza Spalding, plus my trio. Besides my regular trio, all the tracks were done in a dual setting. The other thing is the music on Mwaliko was far more African than on Karibu, which was more on the jazz side. Now, Mwaliko had jazz too, but I think for listeners, Africans would be able to relate more to Mwaliko than toKaribu for sure. For me, it was more about the music I grew up with and all the influences I had from back home.
TIA: Your third album for Blue Note is called Heritage, and that will be coming out on August 28th. What can you say about it?
Lionel Loueke: Heritage is a collaboration and co-production I did with Robert Glasper. It’s a project that is completely different from my other works; my projects are always different. This one is more electric than anything I’ve done to date. Usually, I play acoustic guitar, but for this project I played electric most of the time, and even where I play acoustic it’s steel-stringed. The compositions are groovier. It’s a whole new band as well. I usually play with Ferenc Nemeth on drums and Massimo Biolcation bass. We’ve been playing for 13 years, but this time I wanted to try something completely different, from different musicians to different instruments.
TIA: Why “Heritage”?
Lionel Loueke: I called it Heritage because it’s not just about the heritage I got from my ancestors on the African continent, but also about the things I’ve learned from the west. The fact that I’m speaking English right now, and that I also speak French (since Benin was a French colony). So all that heritage is part of me and that is part of the music.
DOWNLOAD ”Dangbe Dance” from new album “Heritage”
TIA: As an acclaimed musician, you obviously tour extensively. Do you go back to Benin?
Lionel Loueke: Oh yeah! I go back to Benin every year. I have to. For me, it’s my source of inspiration. I have to go there to see my family, my friends and eat my mom’s food! (laughs)
TIA: I completely understand about mom’s food.
Lionel Loueke: (laughs) – I always go in the winter when it’s cold here.
TIA: Do you tour other African nations?
Lionel Loueke: Sometimes, but not that much. Not like Angelique Kidjo or Richard Bona, but that’s due to the style of music I’m playing. I do the South African Jazz Festival. In November I’m going to Benin. Mostly, when there’s a festival. I don’t tour in Africa as much as I would like to. It’s not to say Africans can’t relate to the music, but it’s not really dance music.
TIA: Is there some disconnect with African audiences and jazz? If so, what do you think that is?
Lionel Loueke: Here’s the thing, in Africa, what people call jazz is not always what we call jazz here [US]. The smooth jazz audience there [in Africa] is large. When people say they listen to jazz, or ask each other what they’re listing to, they start calling out all the smooth jazz musicians, which stylistically is just one thing. Why that is? I guess because Africans relate to rhythm, melody and harmony. The harmony in smooth jazz is very simple, and in that respect it’s close to pop music, and there’s a light groove, so people can listen to that, and even dance to it. The music I play, you could dance to it, but a lot of it you can’t really dance to because of odd meters. I’m not always playing regular meters like 4/4. And the harmonies go from simple to very complicated. So it’s just a different approach to jazz. I totally understand that not everybody can relate to that in Africa, but that’s not just an African thing. The same thing applies here.
TIA: When you do go back to Benin, do the people know how successful you are in the west?
Lionel Loueke: Now? Yes. You know in Africa, if you get recognized outside your country, then you get recognized in your country. It’s like if you’re not recognized outside, then you’re not going to get recognized in your country, unless you were very big to begin with, and then left. But now, people come up to me all the time when I’m back home and say things like “I went to Paris and I saw your CD in a record store.” Or they see my name somewhere, or someone will come to my parents with a magazine with my name or pictures in it. Like I said, I go home every year. I always play concerts with local musicians. In the beginning, more than 10 years ago, we would have around 30 people in the audience, 50 at most. Now when I go home, to the same place where I played back then, there are 3,000 to 4,000 people. Also, the new generation of musician is different because of YouTube and technology in general. Many doors are open now, and more people are able to see and hear your work.
TIA: Now that you’re playing for crowds that large back home, are the shows held in stadiums?
Lionel Loueke: No, I’m playing in theatres, but we often have to do two concerts because the tickets get sold out. So people are more into it now. But before I left Benin for the first time, nobody really came. So things are changing. It’s just a matter of letting people hear another style of music from what they’re used to.
TIA: When you’re not touring and writing music, what do you listen to?
Lionel Loueke: Right now, I’m not listening to that much. I just came back from Europe. I was there for 6 weeks. I came home, dropped off my suitcase and went to Newport (Newport Jazz Festival). I just came back yesterday. Right now, I have a 2-week break where I’m not doing any concerts, so this is the time for me to relax. I try to disconnect from everything, even listening to music. That’s what I’ve been doing. So now, when I have a break, I just go to the park, or hang with friends. I try to do something else. But when I listen to music, I mostly listen to classical music. Things that are not related to what I do. I mean, it is music, so it’s related, but classical is related to jazz in a different way, in terms of the development of my ideas. In classical you have different movements like allegro, so I learn from that with improvising. I also listen to traditional music from Benin and other traditional music from different places in Africa. These are things that inspire me to do more than what I’m already doing.
TIA: I’m a big fan of music from Benin, and it’s not just because I’m Nigerian and we’re neighbours. I recently covered an Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo concert at Central Park.
Lionel Loueke: Wow! Talk about influence and inspiration! I listened to those guys all the time back in Benin. They’re legends. I would have loved to see that show, but I was in Europe at the time.
TIA: I’m also a big fan of El Rego.
Lionel Loueke: I played with him! One of my first gigs as a young man was playing with El Rego back in Benin. I believe I was 18 at the time. He’s another great musician.
TIA: That’s amazing. Do you have any upcoming shows?
Lionel Loueke: Yes, I do. I have a CD release at the Blue Note club. I’ll be there for 3 nights, September 4th, 5th and 6th. Before that, I will also be there with Kenny Werner, a great piano player on September 2nd and 3rd. He’s having a CD release. Basically, I’ll be there for 5 days straight. I might as well move my bed in there. (laughs)
TIA: Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us.
Lionel Loueke: A pleasure.
Lionel Louke’s latest album, Heritage, will be released on August 28th. If you are in the NYC area, be sure to catch him at the Blue Note club between September 4th and 6th, where he will be playing with Robert Glasper, Mark Guiliana and Derrick Hodge. He’ll also be there on September 2nd and 3rd with Kenny Werner.
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