Saturday, March 27, 2010

Lionel Loueke: The Unimaginable Tale Of One Jazz Musician

On the surface, Lionel Loueke would seem to be one of the least likely people to enjoy a successful career in the American jazz community. He rose from modest beginnings in West Africa and has now become a regular collaborator with icons like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and an essential part of the modern jazz world.

Growing up in the former French colony of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin,) Loueke knew music as an integral part of everyday life. Like a pickup game of basketball or football, Loueke and his childhood friends would meet up to play in drum circles. He insists that nearly everybody played an instrument, and if they didn’t, they danced. “We play music to celebrate birth, death; any occasion, music is always there. Even as a kid, I remember playing music with other kids, but in my head it wasn’t music. It was just a part of life. At nine years old, I remember we had a percussion ensemble with nine to ten kids and one dancer, and we just played to get some coins from street to street.”

As a teenager he was first exposed to American jazz, and he remembers appreciating the openness of the music. “I liked the parts, the improvisation, the freedom in jazz. [At first,] I didn’t see the connection with African music, but I saw it later. I realized when I was playing in Afro-pop bands, I wasn’t always playing the same lines like you’re supposed to, and I was getting in trouble sometimes. My friends told me ‘you’ve got to play the same line.’ I always liked to have that freedom.”

At eighteen he moved to Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to study at West Africa’s only conservatory: The National Institute Of Art. There he learned music theory, solfège, classical music history, and how to notate music. Then in 1994, after two years in Côte d'Ivoire, he moved to Paris to pursue jazz at the American School of Modern Music before moving again to America where he’d received a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music.

It was at Berklee that he first met bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who would later form the Lionel Loueke trio. Both Biolcati, raised in Sweden from Italian descent, and Nemeth, from Hungary, had studied African music extensively and the three were drawn to each other and to making music that melded their various influences. Together, they began to fuse jazz technique with motifs from Loueke’s African heritage.

In 2001, after graduating from Berklee, Loueke had an opportunity to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles playing for a panel that included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. Of course he was nervous, but mostly because he felt he didn’t have a strong background in jazz to draw on and thought it unlikely he’d be selected. Rather than try to prove he was something else, Loueke simply played the music he knew. He remembers thinking, “‘man, just be yourself because I can’t impress those guys. That’s not the point. It’s about music, so I’m just going to do my best, if they like it or not,’ and they liked it.”

The audition committee was very impressed, and in selecting Loueke—along with Biolcati and Nemeth—they stood to learn as much from him, given his unique background, as he was from them.

It took Loueke a long time to synthesize the different styles of music he was exposed to and develop his own sound. While in Los Angeles, he took a semester’s worth of classical guitar lessons to refine his playing technique and he began to use his fingers much more. This allowed him to play more complex rhythmic patterns, as he now had several fingers to play at once rather than one pick, reflecting much of the popular Spanish and Puerto Rican music he remembered hearing in Benin. He began to play nylon-string guitars at this time as well, giving him a more earthy sound. “Even at Berklee I still was getting so much information and trying to digest it all. At the Monk Institute I was still getting information, but they were helping me to develop my own voice.”

Loueke’s playing went through several other transformations as he sought create sounds that mimicked instruments from Africa. One came through the use of effects pedals. “I use my musicality, of course I use my pedals, and most of the time I use pedals that are not made for that type of sound. Because I try to imitate a lot of instruments, especially African instruments, there’s no pedals made for that, so I can use a wah-wah or wammy pedal to get that sound.”

(During?) At the interview, Loueke was kind enough to demonstrate his particular style of playing, which included a piece of pink paper placed between the strings by the bridge of his guitar, dampening the resonance of the instrument. “I came up with that because I wanted to get a sound close to the kalimba—thumb piano—so the paper between the strings makes the strings vibrate differently, and before I got to that, I used a plastic bag, a comb: I like to try different things. I was playing in Philly, and in the dressing room they had pink paper. Usually before I get on stage I get ready and get a piece of paper. That paper worked so well, I asked them if I could take the whole block, and they said yes, so I’m still using it.”

Singing is another major element of Loueke’s sound. “I don’t consider myself a singer, but I do use my voice like an effect, like a pedal device on my instrument. Because every single note I play I always sing, it helps my phrasing to play better. A few years ago I realized that everything I was playing and singing, after a solo I couldn’t breathe. I questioned myself, and the answer was there: I was playing too much.”

In between singing notes, Loueke will often add click noises with his mouth, which serve the function of a percussion instrument. He says that the click sounds came about in “the most natural way. I used to listen a lot to music from South Africa and it’s part of the language. I don’t speak that language, but I get inspired by the language. If I sing one note, a click, and have a different thing going on the guitar, I can have three parts going on at the same time. For me it is just percussion because I don’t speak that language.”

As Loueke develop personally, so did the sound of his trio. Coming from an institutional background, he used to always notate his music for the other members of his group to read as they were learning new pieces. Sometimes the time would be written with thirteen or seventeen beats a measure, and they were not all on the same page about how to feel that. Each of them had their own interpretation, so now he tends to teach his music by (‘rote’ is the word) wrote, harkening back to his roots. “When you play music, it’s not about the paper. It’s not about the chart. It’s about the ears. That’s how we grew up in Africa. Of course, it’s important to learn music, to learn how to notate, but I think the most important thing is to develop your ears.”
Loueke finds that his music also translates well with audiences. “Talking is not my thing. I like to play. That’s what I do. That’s how I connect with people. Even when people don’t even speak my language or don’t understand what I’m saying, they still can get a feeling, get an idea. People always go home with something in their mind. It’s important, as an artist, to be able to share that without words. Of course, I can do that with words, but I personally prefer to let the music talk.”

Amidst the wide variety of music available today, Loueke’s truly sticks out, and his path to that destiny could have never been planned. “I never thought I would meet one day Herbie Hancock: I mean even shake his hand, or Wayne Shorter. I want to say it’s a dream come true, but I can’t even say that because it wasn’t even part of my dream.”

Unlikely as seems, even to Loueke himself, he is now an established member of the jazz community, with two solo releases for Blue Note Records, and an appearance on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-award winning effort: The River. He has an open mind about music, believing that “every music has a message, even if you don’t get it.” He is sure to be around, influencing those within and outside the jazz world for many years to come.

Here are the two pieces Lionel Loueke played at the interview:

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