Once in a while, a musician comes on the scene and changes everyone’s perceptions of a particular style of music. Lionel Loueke, whom Jon Pareles from the New York Times described as a gentle virtuoso, has done that with jazz. I recently sat down with him for an interview that I can only describe as refreshing and illuminating.
TIA: You’re originally from Benin. For people who don’t know more about your back story, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Lionel Loueke: Yes. I’m Lionel Loueke, and I’m from Benin, West Africa. I started playing percussion like most of the kids in West Africa when I was around 9. At 17 I started to play guitar. My older brother was a guitar player, so he was my first inspiration. I was totally self-taught, so I did a lot of transcription by ears. You know in Africa, when you don’t have the technology to do everything, you do what you can. For example, I was using half dead batteries to slow down the speed of my cassette player so that I could catch up with notes. I worked like that for a while, with guitars that had a string or two missing. So that’s how I started pretty much. I played African pop, music from Franco and Tabu Ley (Rochereau), and stuff from Nigeria like King Sunny Adé and Fela.
TIA: How did you discover jazz?
Lionel Loueke: Through a friend of my brother who had been on vacation in France. He came back to Benin with a George Benson LP, Weekend in L.A. It was a whole new thing for me, especially for someone who was playing African music. I started doing some transcriptions from that, but he [Benson] is a virtuoso, so I had to slow down the speed to learn the notes.
TIA: Benin has a rich musical history, and that comes across in the music you play. Obviously, you play jazz, but you infuse what you play with African rhythms. So while you may be described as a jazz guitarist, stylistically, you’re different from other jazz guitarists; at least the typical western jazz guitarist. How would you describe your music? Would you call it jazz, or would you describe it in a broader way?
Lionel Loueke: That’s a very good question. For me, it’s just music to start with. It’s music with different influences. Jazz, classical and the African influence of course. I think my music is the product of globalization, so it’s global music.
TIA: After your album Virgin Forest, you signed with Blue Note records, a label that needs no introduction to jazz fans. How did that happen?
Lionel Loueke: I was playing with the great trumpet player, Terence Blanchard. He was on Blue Note when I joined the band. I did two CDs (Bounce in 2003 and Flow in 2005) with him on the label. The big boss at Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall, came to me and said he would love to hear what I was doing on my own, so I sent him a demo of my compositions. I didn’t hear anything for like a year, but when I moved here I received a call from Blue Note to come to the office and play, and that’s how it happened…
Read more: Atane Ofiaja, This Is Africa