Lionel Loueke's latest opus, The Journey, marks an elegant voyage that feels global as well as intimate.
When he left his native Benin at the beginning of the 90s, Lionel Loueke was resolved: he would not become a doctor or a mathematician, but a guitarist. Now he is a virtuoso, and he has gotten rich as a result. His reputation for excellence has been forged through hard work, the cosmopolitanism offered by a life in constant motion, and the high praise afforded to him by the greats he has worked with (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper).
Lionel Loueke is not afraid of change, instead, the Beninese musician is always focused on the horizon, drawing from the other worlds that are out there. This intuition has been confirmed by his latest opus, The Journey, an elegant voyage that feels global and yet intimate, formed by its many composite elements. “With this record, I have the sensation of having finally found the real reason why I became a musician.” His heartbeat vibrates with a free and conscious jazz, one that exists between Africa and Brazil.
As free as Bach
From New York to Rio, his movements and migrations have always been threaded through with a sense of total freedom; of improvisation, never to be renounced. He began to master his craft at the tender age of seventeen, using his first guitar on the streets and in the hotels of Cotonou. Later, he attended the National Institute of Arts in Abidjan (Ivory Coast), a school that specialized in … classical music! “I was already fond of jazz. But here, for the first time, I learned to read and write music. I remember dictations and music history classes, too. But above all, I discovered Bach’s music.” Despite having previously listened to the likes Fela and hits from King Sunny Adé, Bach proved to be an unexpected inspiration for Loueke. Apart from discovering the extraordinary creative capacity of his Baroque odyssey, Loueke found in Bach a master of improvisation.
The idea of never losing one’s roots has remained a significant mantra for Lionel Loueke who, almost thirty years later, still finds roadtrips precious and valuable. “The musical experience is a genuine journey, with all the unexpected things it entails. And The Journey is steeped in it. In fact, this record invites journeys. It reflects how they always begin.”
From Benin to Brazil
This Journey starts in Ouidah, his mother’s village. At the end of the 18th century, Brazil sent freed slaves, as well as those that had escaped, back to West Africa in conjunction with its independence. Benin welcomed this community and they settled in Ouidah, giving birth to a lively Afro-Brazilian culture. “Montéro is my mother’s last name. I grew up in this very Brazilian environment and I remember the music and the dances – and feijoada, which I have always considered to be a Beninese dish. The bouriyan is the mask-wearing dancer at the carnival.”
In the fashion of the samba rhythms of “Bouriyan” and Cyro Baptista’s berimbau bow on “Molika,” Lionel Loueke hops onto the banks of jazz with supreme agility. He is a rare natural. However, adventures like this are never accomplished solo: the guitarist has chosen excellent companions who, like him, have developed wordly graces and tastes. On The Journey, He sails with Vincent Ségal, the tailor-made soundscapes of the American super-producer Robert Sadin, the sax of John Ellis (Cinematic Orchestra) and Dramane Dembélé, who plays the flute of the Fula people on “Mandé,” a tribute to the most psychedelic of storytellers and bards.
“I’ve always wanted to play the kora, but you have to start early if you want to play well. The continent is full of excellent musicians. Moreover, for me, Toumani Diabaté is certainly the biggest one.”
Therefore, no kora appears on The Journey. However Lionel Loueke’s guitar playing, his phrasing, his way of teasing out each note, reveals his stylistic anchoring and can not be learned in any school.
Loueke feel amused as he remembers his arrival at the American School in Paris in the late 90s: “The most disconcerting thing was the level of musicians. For my first outing, I went to the Duc des Lombards and, that night, Philip Catherine was playing. Before the concert began, I asked him if I could play with him. Like a true African! He said “maybe at the end.” So I sat in the front row with my guitar between my legs. The first piece was like a big slap in the face. So I stayed quiet, but after that, I never stopped working to improve. I stayed locked in my room for months.”
Soon, his talent and perseverance would take him to Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Monk Institute. He always had the humility to continue learning. “For three months solid, I was practicing on a seven-string. It takes a lot of work. But it’s exciting, because that guitar offers a wider register, similar to the piano. I had to relearn everything!”
“For years, I refused to introduce myself as a singer. For me, my voice is like an effects pedal for my instrument.”
When Lionel Loueke sings – it is fantastic, he strolls with incredible flexibility to the falsetto peaks of his vast register. “When I have to sing, it’s very important for me to stay connected to my mother tongue, Fon, in order to find the right words.” Loueke also tells his stories in Mina and Yoruba, punctuated by the slap of Xhosa language, melodic scat and the challenges posed through his discovery of the work of Miriam Makeba.
But what does he say when he’s singing? Remaining sensitive and concerned, Lionel Loueke is anything but an artist rooted to the spot. He sings about whatever moves him. “Vi Gnin” is a lullaby in “tribute to migrants fleeing the wars that tear their countries apart. Rejected by the western states, they went on to populate the Mediterranean, which became a sea-bound cemetery. Frankly, it has to come out. The listener must wake up and become aware of what our societies are going through. But often, we speak of these things with harsh language. Not here; here it is soft, no distortion, no rock. It is essential to be able to touch consciences without violence. Every human being must confront their situation and do their share of the work. It is too easy to just condemn political leaders.” For Loueke, hope and jazz draw upon the same elegance. Perhaps they even have therapeutic qualities.
Benin has finally begun restoring and reclaiming parts of its heritage: the twenty-six works taken as spoils of war by France during the conquest of Dahomey at the end of the nineteenth century. But Lionel Loueke chooses a specific way to reflect on this, by putting the focus on transmission, communication and therefore memory. He provided workshops to “give courage to young people” during a recent tour of the continent with Celine Rudolph, who sang on Obsessions (Obsessions Music, 2018). Also, surprisingly, he transmits these messages via the mobile app GuitAfrica.
“It’s a tool for all musicians containing twenty-three compositions from different countries based on traditional African rhythms. For now, these are just my suggestions, but it’s a work-in-progress. It has everything: sheet music, solos … I have been working on it for almost five years now. The trigger came when I discovered that some Africans did not know the rhythms of their own country, of their own community. It was as if they had been lost. As for the musicologists who come to Africa, they do a good job, but I found that despite all their good intentions, some do not understand our rhythms. The highlight is not always in place [laughs]! Eventually, I want it to be recognised by Unesco, or, in any case, to be available so that people can study these infinitely rich sounds.”
Lionel Loueke, The Journey (Aparte)