The young guitarist Lionel Loueke was flattered last year to be invited to join Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s renowned intimate duo for a prestigious gig in Hiroshima to mark the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb.
Before the concert, the three of them visited the memorial museum, where they were very moved by the evidence of the bomb’s horrors, and they decided to just go out on stage and play pure feeling without choosing tunes, chords, tonalities, or tempi in advance.
At first, the shy, sensitive Loueke did not play at all. Hancock and Shorter were listening so closely and reacting so quickly to each other, he was reluctant to intrude. Then he began to tap light percussion on his guitar, and to choose his notes carefully. He always chooses his notes carefully.
Born and raised in Benin, Francophone West Africa, Loueke, 33, is bringing fresh light from the Dark Continent into the mainstream of American improvised music - one of the most fascinating trends in years. African roots coming back as branches.
He is currently on a world tour with Hancock’s quintet, including June 27th at the Baku Jazz Festival in Azerbaijan; July 11th and 12th at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland; August 1st at Marciac, France; and concluding on August 9th at the Hollywood Bowl.
“Lionel certainly is a unique player," Hancock is quoted by Loueke on his website: “It’s hard to believe that all of that is coming out of his guitar and his imagination. And what a sweetheart of a human being he is. I’m sure that humanity is at the root of it all." There is obviously more to Loueke than music – he has the air of a griot, an oral historian, he has spiritual insights.
On “In A Trance," his solo CD – so far the only album out under his own name, and available only on his website www.lionelloueke.com - he adapts West African traditions with Monk, rock, funk, and abstract improvisation. There are also Oriental modes, and he scat-sings in unison with his guitar lines (“Be-Nin-Bop"). He sings the songs he writes in his native language, called Fon, which, since few Westerners understand it, becomes a kind of scat-singing of its own.
Sometimes he’ll retune his guitar to have two G strings, which makes the voicing of his chords immediately eponymous. He beats out “rhythms from all over the place" on the guitar’s body, and he accompanies himself with an elaborately programmed assortment of electronic pedal effects, including pre-recorded loops. He does not particularly care if you call it jazz or not.
His father, a university mathematics professor (his mother was a high school teacher), wanted him to study law, but, having grown up listening to African musicians like Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré blend indigenous and Western styles, Lionel (pronounced the French way, LEE-o-nel) was quickly seduced by the guitar. He taught himself the fingerings, and at first he used bicycle brake-cables as strings.
Loueke is a poster-child for the ever more elaborate international jazz education network, and at the same time its antithesis. (He learned how to lay out and when to break the rules on his own.) At the age of 18, he moved to Ivory Coast to study at the National Institute of Art, where he “learned who Beethoven was, and how to read music." He would be a student off and on for the next decade or so – first at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, then at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and finally, starting in 2001, at the elite Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
He has been increasingly in-demand ever since, playing music he likes with musicians he likes in small Manhattan clubs, and performing on the road with Charlie Haden, Terrence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, and Sting.
“As soon as I start to speak French you can tell I’m not Parisian," he said, being interviewed during a stopover in Paris: “And I’m not American. I still feel mostly African, but when I visit home now, I can see by the way my old friends look at me and treat me that it’s not the way it used to be between us. They tell me the local tap water is no good, and that I should only drink bottled water. I guess I’m from everywhere."
Loueke, who lives with his wife and their young child in Brooklyn, is “not a real fan of New York. It’s too fast and crowded for me. But New York is obviously the only place to be for the music. I’ll stay there until I get what I need from New York."
He wishes he had more time to practice his intervals and progressions. Some day he would like to go to Spain to study Flamenco fingering. When I asked him how he feels being an African playing music so heavily influenced by Western elements, he replied: “I don’t think that stretching, learning Western musical history, forms, and harmonies necessarily makes African musicians less authentic."