In January, Lionel Loueke visited Joe’s Pub in Manhattan to preview the songs from his first major-label album, Karibu on Blue Note. Backed only by his longtime triomates, the guitarist sketched out the lilting melody of the title track on a nylon-string acoustic guitar, often shadowing the line with vowel-softened scatting and tongue-popping clicks. There was an echo of his native West Africa not just in the vocals (“karibu” means “welcome” in Swahili) but also in the push-and-pull, two-against-three rhythms. Before long, though, he and his bandmates pulled away from the theme into improvisations that diverted the melody, knotted the rhythm and expanded the harmony. In that pulling away, one could hear the centuries-long journey of African music into jazz synopsized in a seven-minute song.
Loueke’s biography offers a similar synopsis. Like the music itself, he too was born and raised in West Africa-in his case, Benin. He too got started participating in family and neighborhood rituals. He too visited Europe where he discovered how harmony could fit atop African melody and rhythm. He too crossed the Atlantic to transform that hybrid sound into an improvising art form. Unlike so many before him, though, Loueke made this journey not because he was compelled by slavery, poverty or politics, but out of an intellectual hunger, as if he sensed the potential in the music of his childhood that could only be unlocked by new tools and new experiments, as if he intuited that African music was a tree of many branches and could be truly grasped only by following its path out into the diaspora.