Lionel Loueke’s Winding Journey

For his latest album, the guitarist takes on the subject of 21st-century migration and reckons with his own artistic path

(photo by: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

In early October, just after concluding two concerts in Kuwait City with Herbie Hancock and two weeks before embarking on a month of European one-nighters with Dave Holland’s Aziza quartet, Lionel Loueke was on the phone from Switzerland. The subject was his 2018 release, The Journey (Aparté), which contains 15 of the guitarist/singer’s compositions. Some are instrumental, but on most Loueke applies his lilting tenor to lyrics in Fon, French, Mina, and Yoruba, all languages spoken in his homeland, Benin, on the Atlantic coast of equatorial Africa.

“I was thinking about this project for a long time,” said Loueke, who’d spent the day teaching at the Jazz Campus of Musik Akademie Basel. “I wanted to do an acoustic, melody-oriented project that mixed all my influences from the beginning to where I am today, combining classical musicians and instruments with traditional instruments from Africa and jazz musicians in the most organic possible way.”

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. 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.

On another level, The Journey also traces Loueke’s path as an artist, which began in Cotonou, Benin’s capital, where he spent much of his teens as a dancer and percussionist, as referenced in the opening track, “Bouriyan.” (The song is named for an Afro-Brazilian carnival rhythm in Ouidah, the hometown of his mother, a schoolteacher and the descendant of emancipated slaves who settled there after leaving Brazil at the turn of the 19th century.) At 17, already familiar with traditional music through his grandfather, a village singer, Loueke began playing his older brother’s guitar, using bicycle cable for strings.

“I was thinking about how to get the sound of the kora or kalimba or djembe, which are not chromatic, on the guitar, but I also got involved in Occidental music playing rock and blues,” Loueke recalled. “At first, I thought everything was just part of the song, because in Africa you sing, then you play, and then you have the verse. When I discovered they were improvising, I became curious. The first time I heard B.B. King, the way he bent the notes reminded me of a three-string instrument in the north of Benin. I could hear where it came from.”

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, where he first connected to Bach and Stravinsky. In 1994, he moved to Paris for four years of jazz studies; he then matriculated to Berklee on a scholarship, remaining in Boston for another three years. In 2001, a panel including Hancock, Shorter, Terence Blanchard, and Charlie Haden—each a future Loueke employer—admitted the guitarist to the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles. And in 2003, after more than a decade of formal education, Loueke finally felt prepared to enter the fray as a professional.

Lionel Loueke (photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Fifteen years on, Loueke, now 45, is a singular figure in jazz and world music circles. Peers and elders deeply respect his individualism; his rhythmic capabilities and exhaustive harmonic knowledge; his ability to sing in one meter and play in another; the way he 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). 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.

You can get a sense of Loueke’s imagination at its most rampant on Close Your Eyes (Newville), last year’s freewheeling run through eight standards with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. It’s an apropos successor to his final two albums for Blue Note, which signed him in 2008: Heritage (2012), an Afrofolkloric hardcore/jazz hybrid featuring keyboardist/co-producer Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Mark Guiliana; and Gaia (2015), a rock-oriented recital with longstanding trio partners Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on a uniquely configured drumkit made up of West African percussion instruments.

Even before those Blue Note dates, Loueke and Robert Sadin had been discussing a song-oriented project. They didn’t pull the trigger until 2015, when Loueke, in New York for a Carnegie Hall concert with Benin-born singer and frequent collaborator Angélique Kidjo, invited Sadin to hear some demos. The first song was “Bawo,” with a lyric in Yoruba that translates: “How have we come to this? / Modern-day slavery / And climate disruption push / Humanity to the roads of exile.” As recorded on The Journey, Loueke accompanies himself with keening blues lines, propelled by Beninese percussionist Christi Joza Orisha’s talking drums, Pino Palladino’s dancing bassline, and Sadin’s painterly keyboards.

“Robert loved ‘Bawo’ and asked me to send more, so I kept writing and composing,” Loueke said. “We had enough music for a double album, but we chose tunes that best fit the project. Then he came up with the greatest idea—I’d play by myself in the studio for three days. I’d never done anything like that. I had thoughts, but not a clear conception of what I wanted to do. He just let me record, and I came up with ideas that we developed.”

“The key was starting every single song with Lionel playing alone,” said Sadin, who previously produced Loueke’s 2008 album Virgin Forest. “Lionel is so sensitive to other musicians, the nuance in his timing is so great, that he will intuitively adjust himself to and harmonize with the sensibilities and timing of whoever he plays with. It’s like breathing for him. He can’t not do it. I wanted this to be pure, unadorned, with no thought except himself, and we would work everything else around it, including some overdubs from him.”

Loueke had the option to record a fifth album for Blue Note, but Sadin steered him to Aparté, a purist classical label whose roster includes clarinetist Patrick Messina, who’d first performed with Loueke in a Sadin-led septet at the Savannah Music Festival in 2011. That septet also featured percussionist Cyro Baptista, violinist Mark Feldman, and cellist Vincent Ségal, who all contribute to The Journey. According to Sadin, “Aparté wanted to start doing non-classical music that harmonized with their catalog, and they asked me for several names. I told them to start with Lionel. So did Patrick. I sent the owner a demo of ‘Vi Gnin,’ and he said, ‘Fine, that’s our guy—fantastic.’”

Asked why he advocated for Loueke, Sadin gathered his thoughts. “It was a subterranean, global response,” he said. “Leaving aside the giants of the older generation, Lionel is perhaps the single most compelling musician I know. I’ve often said that people can hang on with Herbie, but the only people who can really play with him are Wayne and Lionel. Lionel plays jazz—jazz is a large part of his life—but he’s not a jazz artist; he’s himself.”

Lionel Loueke at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Midway through the 2010s, in response to television news images from Africa, Europe, and the waters between—images of shattered vessels, drowned corpses, and squalid refugee camps—Loueke began writing songs like “Bawo” and “Vi Gnin” (“My child, do not cry / War has taken your mother away / Like the wind carries off the roses / Do not worry, she is watching over you”). “I wanted to present a strong musical statement,” he said, “something quieter and gentler than Gaia but delivering the same intense message about how we as humans are taking care of the planet. The idea is a wake-up call to anybody who listens.”

For Loueke, whose move to Europe 25 years ago transpired under very different circumstances, the subject of migration is personal. “I was lucky I didn’t have to take a ship to get to the West,” he said. “It takes courage to jump in a ship, knowing you might die in the ocean. To take such an action means you have no more hope where you’re living. Many people in the West don’t get that point. You don’t just choose to get on a boat because you want to live in Europe. It’s because there’s a war, or there is no more food, or there is modern slavery where you’re living—and you have to get out. You have nothing else to lose. You’d rather die in the ocean than be killed by somebody.”

In the face of such desperation, choosing optimism is difficult, but “Vi Gnin,” “Bawo,” “The Healing,” and—reimagined from Heritage—“Hope (Espoir)” are optimistic nonetheless. “If there’s no more hope, there’s no more life,” Loueke said. “So you keep going because you have a hope, and that’s how you can see a better living situation in the future.”

The guitarist was “in a classical state of mind” when conceiving The Journey’s rubato version of “Hope,” on which Messina’s clarinet and Ségal’s cello interact with his haunting vocal. Similarly, on “Vi Gnin” (where Baptista and Orisha gently complement his acoustic guitar) and “Reflections on Vi Gnin” (a pensive solo instrumental distinguished by spacious volume-pedal swells), he uses “just open triads that you hear a lot in classical music; I’m not playing jazz chords.” He also ascribes classical roots to “Gbêdetemin,” played with Baptista and Orisha, and the kinetic “Molika,” with John Ellis on soprano sax and Baptista on berimbau.

“For me, it’s a great idea to embrace classical music with what I do,” Loueke said. “It opens up my music, and gives classical listeners a different approach. I don’t want to be in a box. I never wanted to play the same thing twice or stay in the same zone.”

Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth met Loueke soon after his arrival at Berklee. “Lionel already had something nobody had heard before,” Biolcati recalled. “He was mixing his traditional African guitar style with jazz, and his sense of rhythm was so far beyond anybody in his age group that people were always blown away. He could hear all the West African polyrhythms simultaneously—one day, he’d come in with a tune and count it off in three, the next day he’d do it in four or six.”

“I heard a lot of George Benson influence,” Nemeth said. “He’d learned all of Benson’s solos by heart, because nobody told him it was a solo. In Africa, it’s part of the culture to learn everything in the song. Of course, he already had the African thing, and I played him a lot of music from Hungary and Eastern Europe, things in seven, nine and 11, and classical music by Bartók and Kodály. One time in Hungary he played a concert with Herbie before thousands of people, and in the middle of a solo he played a folk song that my mom taught him before the concert. He’s like a sponge; he hears something, and he can pick it up and incorporate it into his playing.”

The three entered the Monk Institute together, and practiced incessantly. “That’s when he bloomed and created the whole entity of Lionel Loueke,” Nemeth said.

Initially at Berklee, Loueke remarked, “I was trying to learn the jazz tradition, and understand it—to sound like them. Then I started listening to myself, and it was my first hint that I had a different way of playing. We’re all influenced by somebody else, but at some point you have to be yourself.”

While in Los Angeles, Loueke accelerated the process by eschewing guitar picks for a four-finger approach. “I took classical guitar lessons for a year with a great teacher, just to get the right hand technique and sound, though I was playing a jazz guitar,” he said. “Then I bought a classical guitar and focused on that for a year. It was like relearning the instrument. With the pick I had technique, but now I had none. I did it because I saw what I would gain by playing with fingers and nails: being able to play rhythms and counterpoint, and not always playing one or two notes at a time.

“Of course, playing with Herbie for so many years helped me to visualize the instrument differently. He explores new territory every moment. This is the only person I know who plays soundcheck exactly like he’s at the gig, sometimes for several hours. I’ve learned not to be afraid to try new things.

“I’m a risk-taking person,” Loueke added. “A mistake is just for the moment—make it the best mistake it can be, and that’s it. Sometimes a mistake speaks to me strongly, so the first thing I do after the gig is pick up my guitar and revisit it, develop it, make it something I might use. If you don’t take risks, you don’t get anything back. If you don’t believe it, you can’t expect anyone else to believe it.”

Nemeth cosigned Loueke’s self-assessment. “Any time I play something different, he looks at me like, ‘Wow, that’s a new thing I didn’t hear—let’s go for it.’ He’s fearless. That’s what took him out of Benin. That’s what took him on this journey.”

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.