Lionel Loueke, the fearsomely talented Beninese guitarist and singer, has won deep respect from critics and peers alike for his individualism, rhythmic capabilities, and exhaustive harmonic knowledge.
Born in 1973 in Benin’s capital city of Cotonou, Loueke transforms the guitar into a virtual Afro-Western orchestra through techniques that evoke instruments like the kalimba (by muting his strings with crepe paper) and the talking drum (with help from his DigiTech Whammy pedal).
Loueke began playing percussion instruments around the age of nine but started playing guitar when he was 17. George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, and Wes Montgomery all influenced Loueke, who spent a year saving up the $50 he needed to buy his first guitar. A determined player, Loueke would soak his guitar strings in vinegar to keep them clean when he couldn’t afford replacements. When the strings broke, he restrung his instrument with bicycle cables.
In 1990, Loueke—whose parents were advocating a career as a mathematician or doctor—left Cotonou to study harmony and ethnomusicology at the National Institute of Arts in Ivory Coast. In 1994, he moved to Paris for four years of jazz studies; he then matriculated to Berklee College of Music on a scholarship, remaining in Boston for another three years. In 2001, a panel including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, and Charlie Haden admitted the guitarist to the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles. (He has since performed and recorded extensively with all of the aforementioned artists.) And in 2003, after more than a decade of formal education, Loueke started playing professionally.
Lionel Loueke – Molika (Official Video) ft. John Ellis & Cyro Baptista
Loueke is now a singular figure in jazz and world music circles. He’s written several popular compositions, most famously “Benny’s Tune,” which Blanchard debuted in 2003. And his improvisations evoke a global array of associations: King Sunny Adé and Tabu Ley Rochereau, George Benson and Wes Montgomery, Derek Bailey and Bill Frisell.
Lionel Loueke Trio, Countdown June 2018 on Newvelle Records
He released his 11th album as a leader, The Journey, in 2018. The album’s title is as multi-layered as its contents. On one level, it’s about why so many Africans have decided to leave their homes and take the perilous journey to Europe—and the stark conditions they face upon arrival. On another, it’s about his own personal journey from Benin to America. Loueke frames this story of modern migration within a succession of lovely melodies, orchestrated by Robert Sadin, a favored collaborator of Herbie Hancock (Gershwin’s World) and Wayne Shorter (Alegría), and interpreted by a cohort of virtuosos from the U.S., Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean, and West Africa.
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Lionel Loueke – NPR Music