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Lionel Loueke: African American

Lionel Loueke (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Lionel Loueke (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke

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.

Later at Joe’s Pub, when Loueke reappeared through the red curtain onto the corner stage for his encore, he brought out a special, unannounced guest. It wasn’t Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, the only two guests on Loueke’s new guitar-trio record. It was Angelique Kidjo, Benin’s most famous musician. They made an odd couple: The towering jazz guitarist wore a pink-and-blue striped shirt and a short braid at the back of an otherwise bald head, while the tiny pop singer wore a black leather skirt and jacket and a short, bright blonde afro. But when they began to perform, it was obvious that they had had similar childhoods in the same place.

The song was “Malaika,” the lament of a boy who lacks the money to marry his “angel.” This Swahili standard has been recorded by everyone from Kidjo and Miriam Makeba to Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Its skipping melody and syncopated beats are not so different from those in Loueke’s own compositions, and when he embarked on his solo, he built new harmonies atop the tune remembered from his youth. Before long, he had departed the tune and was ricocheting inside one new chord after another, sounding more like Hancock and Shorter than Kidjo, but the ghost of that original melody, of that long-ago childhood, of that left-behind Africa, could be heard in everything he played.

The next day over lunch at the Sala One Nine restaurant in Chelsea, Loueke, now 34, gladly remembered details from that childhood. Crouched over his calamari amid the beaded lamps and exposed brick, he recalled his life as an 18-year-old in Benin’s largest city, Cotonou. He’d only been playing guitar for a year or so, but already he was good enough to join a band of older musicians led by El Rego. The group-which included electric guitar, electric bass, drums and horns-played in local bars and restaurants and for house parties. Their repertoire came from four main sources: the Afro-pop and Afro-beat hits of Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade and Tabu Ley Rochereau; the American pop hits of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie; waltzes and ballads from France (Benin’s former colonizer); and the traditional songs that accompany every ritual in Benin.

Those ceremonial numbers posed a particular challenge for the band. When sung in people’s houses to mark a birth, wedding, death or anniversary, they are performed with just voice and percussion. Loueke himself spent many afternoons at such neighborhood feasts, banging on bells and drums behind the chantlike singing until the complicated rhythms of West African music became second nature to him. But to play those same songs on electric guitar for dancers in a bar required brand new parts.

“When we played those traditional songs with modern instruments,” Loueke explained, “the melody and rhythm would stay the same, but we’d try to add a harmony on top of it. But nobody knew what was right, because we were putting chords where there’d never been chords before. It was only years later, after I went to school, that I realized the problem: The melodies were in a pentatonic scale and we were using the Western eight-note scale for the chords. We didn’t know that so we just had to do what we could. Sometimes it sounded great, and sometimes it sounded awful.”

The experience made him fascinated by harmony and hungry to learn more. He had heard about jazz but hadn’t heard any actual jazz performances. But he had an inkling that this exotic word contained clues for his questions about harmony. Then one summer a friend of his older brother Alexis came home for vacation from school in Paris with a vinyl LP copy of George Benson’s Weekend in L.A. Lionel held the 12-by-12-inch cover in his hand, staring at the photo of Benson in a white suit, his arms outstretched against the black background, as if it might provide the answers he was seeking.

The Benin guitarist needed to hear the LP, but turntables were few and far between in a land where the audio cassette was king. His father had a turntable, but everyone else in the family was strictly forbidden to touch it. Lionel couldn’t help himself; when his dad was out of the house one day, he quickly put the two vinyl discs on the stereo, taped the sound off the speakers into his cassette recorder, put everything back the way it had been and slipped away as if nothing had happened. He listened to his second-generation tape obsessively, trying to understand what he was hearing.

“I wondered how it was possible to play a guitar like that,” Loueke remembered. “The notes he was playing had nothing to do with what I was used to, and the technique was so strange and so fast. I didn’t know he was improvising; I thought all the notes were part of the composition. I tried to memorize it, but it was too fast. So I put some bad batteries in the tape recorder so it would slow down enough for me to hear the notes. I’d practice two bars for two days over and over and once I’d learned them, I’d put in the good batteries and play it in the original key and tempo. Then I’d start over with the next two bars.

“I’d heard rock ‘n’ roll, blues and soul before, but this was so different from that. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. I had all these questions, and no one could answer them. There was no music school, no bookstore, no library. Then someone told me there were books on music at the French Cultural Center. I went and asked for an encyclopedia on jazz, and that’s how I found out Benson was improvising. That’s how I found out about the guitarists who came before him-Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Django Reinhardt. The center had some of their albums, but I couldn’t take them out, so I asked if I could make copies on my cassette recorder. I started learning those tunes the same way I’d learned the tunes on Weekend in L.A. and I asked a bassist and drummer I knew to learn their parts.”

It was the kind of life-changing epiphany that has more impact at 18 than at any other age. Instead of repeating the same parts over and over, here was a way to play new parts every time the chorus came around again. Instead of the trial-and-error, hit-and-miss harmony Loueke was used to, here was harmony with an internal logic. He wanted to decode that logic, so he wrangled an admission to the Ivory Coast’s National Institute of Art. He was ostensibly studying classical guitar, but he spent every minute he could in music theory courses, learning notation and harmonic principles. Better yet, he met someone who owned a copy of the Real Book. Loueke spent all his savings making photocopies.

“Here were the correct changes for all the tunes I’d been playing by ear,” he recalled, “and suddenly it started making sense. Some of the teachers heard me playing jazz, and they wanted me to teach them. I told them, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,’ but they paid me for lessons anyway. In 1992, they took me on a tour of the U.S. playing traditional Ivory Coast music, and we spent two weeks in Memphis. I used all my per diem money to buy jazz CDs. I walked into a shop and asked what CDs I should get and someone said Kind of Blue. I’d heard of Miles, but I’d never heard him. I listened to that CD over and over, transcribing the trumpet solos.”

Learning something new can provide a thrill the equal of sex or romance, drugs or sports. One could hear the echo of that excitement in the Chelsea restaurant, as Loueke, in his soft, polite voice, still accented with hints of French and Fon, recounted how one hard-won discovery engendered hunger for more.

“In jazz I heard that freedom of improvising I didn’t hear in any other music,” he said with bubbling enthusiasm. “When I played American pop or Afro-pop, I felt locked in because I was playing the same lines over and over with no room to express myself. My dad wanted me to become a classical guitarist, but I said, ‘I can’t do that; I need the freedom to go wherever I want.’ At first I was just playing other people’s solos, but I knew if I went to music school and learned how to improvise harmony, I’d know how to create my own solos. Then I’d be fishing rather than just eating fish.”

Having learned the fundamentals of harmony in Abidjan, he wanted a more jazz-specific education. The U.S. was the logical place to go, but he didn’t speak a word of English so he focused instead on the American School of Modern Music, a jazz institute in Paris run by American graduates of the Berklee School of Music who had married French women.

But there was a catch: The school wouldn’t accept him without an audition, and the French government wouldn’t give him an extended visa unless he was accepted at the school. So in 1994 Loueke obtained a two-week visa, took all the money he had and flew to Paris, knowing he’d have to return home penniless if he didn’t pass the audition. Such a situation can either focus the mind or confound it, but the 21-year-old Beninian thrived under the pressure. He’d spend the next five years in Paris.

“I was in heaven,” he declared. “In Paris, I could go to a music store to look at instruments and buy guitar strings. That was a big thing, because when I broke a string in Benin, I’d have to replace it with a bicycle cable. If I had questions about music, I could go to a bookstore or library and get answers.”

Paris is the international capital for Afro-pop musicians, but Loueke had come all that way to challenge himself with the new, not to be comfortable with the old. Today African musicians in Paris are surprised to learn that Loueke spent the late ’90s in their city, because he buried himself so completely in jazz theory and jazz jam sessions that they never saw him. In 1998, though, near the end of his stay in Paris, he got interested in African music again.

“I pulled out my old tapes of Fela, of traditional African songs, of my old band,” he explained. “Some things were out of tune, but much of it was so beautiful; those guys were playing so naturally, with such innocence. When I heard myself on those old tapes, it was obvious I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was so natural. I realized that I couldn’t get back to that innocence, but I knew it was sleeping somewhere inside me and I could wake it up now and then.”

Now that he knew how to analyze harmony, Loueke could understand how the African scale is different from the Western scale, how the flatted notes make it similar to though not the same as a blues scale. When he started mixing the different harmonies, he found it gave him a different texture, a different sound from everyone else. It was now 1999; he was only 26 and he had already reenacted in his own life the collision of African and European music that led to the blues and jazz. The only thing left to do was to go to the United States.

“It’s easy to misunderstand Lionel’s story,” argued his current employer, Herbie Hancock, “because he comes from West Africa, where the folk music and rhythms provided the historical foundation for jazz. But Lionel left Benin and went to Paris, so he got the influence of Europe too. Jazz wouldn’t have developed as it did if not for the European influence. If you listen to Scott Joplin’s music, you hear Europe juxtaposed with Africa. You hear that in Lionel’s music as well.”

Loueke arrived in Boston in 1999 to attend the Berklee School of Music. He dived into the free-for-all evening jam sessions and soon met the two musicians who have been with him ever since. Ferenc Nemeth was a Hungarian drummer steeped in his country’s folk musics. Bassist Massimo Biolcati came from an Italian family but had grown up in Sweden, where he had a strong classical education. The bond was immediate.

“We were all sharing the immigrant experience,” Loueke recalls. “We were learning the English language, the American culture, the jazz tradition, but we didn’t forget where we come from. Ferenc knew a lot of gypsy music so he was comfortable with odd meters. In Africa we play a lot in 6/8 and 12/8, but it’s all about feel; they’re not even counting. If you asked about the time, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, but they can play them all. I was trying to take the African music I grew up with and push it further, stretch them out in different harmonies, different meters, by playing in 9/8, 13/8 or 15/8. Both Ferenc and Massimo got that. They were listening and reacting without stepping on my toes.”

Nearly nine years later, the three ex-schoolmates were onstage together at Joe’s Pub, playing Loueke’s recent composition, “Seven Teens.” “This song is written in 17/4,” the guitarist told the audience, “but we want to make it sound easy. It’s not a mathematical exam,” he added with a laugh. The trio did make it sound easy; the long lines went down effortlessly because the melody, delivered in parallel scatting and picking, was so pretty, and because the trio gave the extended bars a grooving pulse.

In 2001, Loueke, Biolcati and Nemeth all auditioned for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The tryouts were held in a small room at the University of Southern California, and the applicants performed for a panel of judges that included Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard. Loueke was asked to play “Footprints,” but he prefaced the tune with a long scatting-and-picking introduction that reflected his Benin roots before segueing smoothly into Shorter’s famous composition.

At the end, several judges started clapping; Shorter stood up and exclaimed, “He’s my brother; I told you guys, I’m from Africa. He’s my brother.” Like all the candidates, Loueke had been told to learn 10 tunes, from which three would be chosen for the audition. The second number was John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” and once again, the guitarist set the melody and changes to a West African groove and then started scatting along with the nylon strings.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘This guy is either crazy or brilliant,'” said Blanchard. “It didn’t take long to figure out he was brilliant.” Hancock told his fellow judges, “What about we forget about the Monk Institute and I take this guy on the road?” Anxious officials from the Institute reminded everyone that students had to make a commitment to stay at school for two years.

Biolcati and Nemeth were also accepted into the Monk Institute, and the three Berklee pals were able to play together all the time, often with their frequent collaborator, vocalist Gretchen Parlato. The program provides students with room and board as well as a thousand-dollar-a-month stipend, so they could concentrate on their studies without having to take jobs or gigs. Blanchard, who teaches at the Institute one week a month, was so impressed with the Benin guitarist that Loueke was invited to join Blanchard’s band for weekend gigs that wouldn’t conflict with classes.

“It was actually pretty funny,” Blanchard recalled. “I saw Herbie backstage somewhere and he said, ‘I’m thinking of taking Lionel on the road this summer.’ As soon as Herbie went onstage to do his show, I called my road manager and told him to get Lionel in the band. I could tell by what he was doing in class that he was ready; he was growing by leaps and bounds. I said, ‘Let’s stick him in the band and see what happens.’ I talked to Herbie about it and he said, ‘He’s amazing. He’s going to bring something new to your group.’ What’s amazing is he knows how to fit in; he’s not going to obstruct what you’re already doing.”

As if his life weren’t complicated enough, shuttling back and forth between the Monk Institute and Blanchard’s band, Loueke decided to radically revamp the way he played guitar. Since he had been a 17-year-old kid in Benin, he’d played a solidbody, steel-string guitar with a pick. Now he wanted to play a hollow, nylon-string guitar with his fingers.

“I started hearing the guitar like a piano,” he explained, “not as a choice between playing notes or chords but playing notes and chords at the same time. I couldn’t do that with the pick, but when I went to finger-picking on nylon strings I could. And when I stopped jumping around on the strings with the pick, I found I could play polyrhythm more easily. I was already playing with Terence at this point; it was my first professional gig, and I had to completely relearn my instrument.

“I went to him and said, ‘I have to do this to play what I hear,’ and he said, ‘Go for it.’ I’d put my pick on top of my amp and try not to use it, but by the end of the gig I’d get so frustrated that I’d grab the pick. Then I’d put it in my wallet to make it harder to reach. Then one night I said, ‘I’m not taking a pick at all.’ And that was it.”

Today Loueke plays a nylon-string, hollowbody instrument. He weaves a small slip of paper loomlike through his strings, just above the bridge, to create the brittle percussive sound that reminds Loueke of the African thumb piano, known as the kalimba or mbira. It also sounds a bit like the kora, the West African 21-string gourd instrument.

But the kora is hardly played at all in Benin, and it’s only a little less foreign to Loueke than it is to most Americans. Africa is, after all, a huge continent, and a Beninian musician is no more likely to share instruments and repertoire with one from Mali or Tanzania than a New England musician is likely to share tunes and tools with one from New Orleans or Veracruz. In fact, the clicking sounds, which are so much a part of Loueke’s current performances, are not something he grew up with. They’re a technique he learned from studying tapes of South African musicians-as any American might.

“I don’t speak any of the click languages,” he conceded, “but I feel it. Three years ago I wasn’t doing the click sound at all. While at Berklee I had gone to South Africa on a gig, and I started buying tapes and records of that click language. The more I heard it, the more I connected with it. I never really practiced it until one day two or three years ago I was playing a gig and I started fooling around with my tongue and the clicks came out. I said, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ So I did it more and more. I realized I could sing and click and play the guitar on top of it and have three or four lines going at once. It freaked me out.”

At Joe’s Pub in January, Loueke demonstrated how he can get four different parts going at once on “Benny’s Tune,” a composition for his Beninian wife, Benedicta, on the new album. The brisk, syncopated rhythm was announced by the guitarist’s choppy chords; he then threaded a single-note melodic line through those chords. He shadowed that melody with wordless singing, then added mouth clicks to reinforce the pulse. Soon he was switching back and forth between chords and single notes, vowels and clicks, until the four elements became entwined as one voice. When Biolcati’s descending basslines or Nemeth’s bundle-stick fills countered Loueke’s established groove, the guitarist smiled and embarked on a new tangent.

In the summer of 2005, Hancock finally formalized the invitation he’d hinted at so many times and welcomed Loueke into the band. “I thought of hiring him the first time I heard his demo, even before he showed up for his audition,” Hancock confessed. “When we heard that CD, both Wayne and I said, ‘Damn, this guy is a motherfucker.’ Terence snatched him up and then I stole Lionel from Terence. I think Terence was fine about that because he realized that there were certain opportunities I might open up for Lionel, and Terence is all about pushing young people forward in the cause of cultural development.

“What makes me excited about Lionel’s playing is his playing, not his background. He could have been from China, as far as I’m concerned. He says the musicians from Benin couldn’t play ‘Seven Teens’; they would not even know what that is. He’s developed an approach to music that includes all those influences from all the places he’s lived. He grew up in Benin, so he’s got that; he lived in Paris, so he got that, and he’s lived in the States, and he’s got that.”

As much as he has benefited from working with Blanchard, Hancock, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and others, Loueke insists that his main focus is his own trio. The three musicians have been together almost nine years, a long period for any jazz musicians but especially for young musicians. They were fortunate to move as a unit from Berklee to the Monk Institute and then out into the gigging world. All three are ambitious composers. Nemeth wrote 11 of the 12 tracks on his 2007 solo debut, Night Songs, and Biolcati wrote all 10 of the tracks on his 2008 solo debut, Persona. Loueke plays on both projects.

“As far back as the Monk Institute, I knew Massimo and Ferenc were great writers,” he claimed. “There’s something special about playing with the same musicians for so long. With my music it doesn’t matter who you are, you have to feel that rhythm before you play; if you don’t you’re going to be in trouble. A great musician can play whatever I ask but it might not feel as natural if they haven’t been playing it for a while. Ferenc, Massimo and I have played together so much that they can feel that rhythm.”

Karibu is the third album to feature the trio. The first, 2005’s Gilfema, titled after the trio’s collective name, was a more democratic affair with at least three compositions from each member. Later this year a second Gilfema project will be recorded and released on ObliqSound. Of all Loueke’s recordings, however, Virgin Forest, released in 2006 under his name, offers the most revealing glimpse at the guitarist’s transition from traditional African music to modern jazz. On four of the dozen compositions, Loueke first performs the piece with a West African percussion ensemble led by the Raimi Brothers and the Tessi Brothers and then a second time with his American band.

The best example of this is the title track. In the 70-second “Prelude,” Loueke plays the hypnotic rise-stop-and-rise-again melody on his guitar against slapping drums, whistling fife, chiming bells and clicking sticks. He is joined on the Fon lyrics by a chorus of voices, sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in call-and-response. Then the same melody and groove is reprised by Loueke, Nemeth, Biolcati and Parlato for a six-minute transformation of the same materials.

The Americans distill the rhythm from a marketplace of chattering, spontaneous voices to a more focused indoor conversation among family members. Meanwhile, new chord changes have been set atop the beat and the tune, and when Loueke starts soloing, he pushes the harmony into new shapes, as if proposing that the “virgin forest” is not a timeless, static place but an ever-evolving landscape. It’s not as if he’s leaving the West African tradition behind as he goes off on modern-jazz tangent; it’s more that he’s suggesting that the music of his childhood, of the land from which the African diaspora sprang, is also ever evolving, is taking hold of new knowledge to go where it has always wanted to go.

“Virgin Forest was a concept album,” Loueke explained. “I wanted to include where I’m from and where I am now on the same CD. When I go back to Benin, people love the music I’m writing. They recognize the roots of Africa, because I’m singing in Fon and my rhythms are not different from what they’re used to, but the harmony I’m playing on top of the melody is new to them. But they’re open to it, because they can hear how it grows out of the melody. And their enthusiasm lets me know I’m on the right path.

“At one point I wanted to sound just like George Benson, Joe Pass or Grant Green, but now I’m glad I have my accent. I’ll always speak English with an accent, and I’ll always play jazz with an accent.”


Loueke plays a Godin Grand Concert guitar from Canada, a nylon-string, hollowbody instrument with no large soundhole (to reduce feedback). He plays through AER amplifi ers or a Fender Twin Reverb, and his effects rig includes a Dunlop Crybaby Wah pedal, a Line Six Echo Park, a BOSS Loop Station and a DigiTech Whammy pedal. His coolest effect, however, is a small slip of paper he weaves loomlike through his strings, just above the bridge, to create the brittle percussive sound that reminds Loueke of the African thumb piano-the kalimba or mbira. Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.