Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Jan 26th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Of course, in his case the audience in question is in Benin, where Loueke was born and raised. And the sounds are those of the modern jazz he embraced as a music student in Paris in the mid-'90s and has personalized in the decade since moving to the U.S. to study at the Berklee College of Music and then at the Thelonious Monk Institute. That's all evolved further in gigs as a member of Herbie Hancock's band and regular work with Terence Blanchard and others, as Loueke has developed a distinctive sound with his low-tuned nylon string guitars.
Even with the great amount of African elements he's put in his music -- as heard to remarkable effect on his new album, 'Mwaliko,' being released by Blue Note on Feb. 9 -- he just feels he has to approach things differently when back in Benin.
"Oh, yes, I do," he says. "When I was home for the holidays and played a concert, I always do that. I play differently in a way. I don't play with the same musicians, for one thing. And jazz is not a music well known in Benin. So what I try to do is play mostly traditional songs people already know and make arrangements on top of it and show them the possibilities, what you can do with the simple traditional songs. The audience seems more connected. It's the best way to bring them music they don't know. Been doing that for 10 years now. It works."
Not that it's any easier when things are reversed.
"It's the other end," he says. "Same way when I'm here in the US, and people don't understand the other side. It's something new and different."
Arguably, though, the music on 'Mwaliko' might work in either setting. Here, in a series of duets (with fellow Beninian Angelique Kidjo, Cameroon-born jazz bassist Richard Bona and rising star bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding) and tracks with his intuitive trio Gilfema (with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth), he's perfected a blend that he'd been evolving over the course his four previous albums. It seemed that in this project everything just, well, clicked -- both figuratively and literally:
Lionel Loueke, 'Twins'
'Twins,' one of two duets with Spalding, is among the several spots on the album where Loueke engages in percussive mouth and vocal sounds that cut deep to his African roots. It's certainly something that's struck Western audiences as exotic, though for the musician it's so natural that it's not even really a conscious act.
"Sometimes when I do a workshop, people are asking me how you control it," he says. "Hard for me to explain. When it comes out I have no control. I just let it out -- no special rule to explain it, and I like it like that. Sometimes it comes out, sometimes not. I don't force it. Sometimes I feel it's too much, but that's me. Like I said, I have no control, really."
Loueke certainly knows about being introduced to new musical ideas -- a key epiphany commemorated on this album by an interpretation of Wayne Shorter's 'Nefertiti' (which was a title track of a 1967 Miles Davis album when Shorter and Hancock were in his band).
"I heard 'Nefertiti' in Paris, was a student there in 1996, I think," he says. "I never heard of Wayne Shorter before that. Shame on me! Coming from Africa, I wasn't exposed to people like Wayne or John Coltrane. So I studied in Paris and discovered Wayne because I studied his music for a semester. That was the first time. I remember just the same way as when I heard Coltrane. I loved what I was hearing without understanding. It was completely different that what I used to listen to at the time. I couldn't understand it musically. But I felt connected."
At that point he'd been focused on bebop and traditional jazz, especially guitarists such as Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery. It was that "vocabulary of music" that he was trying to learn, he says. And then he heard the more modern guys.
"It changed my mind completely," he says. "The spirit of this music is about improvisation and the moment. No point to go back and play like 1945 for me any more. If I'm listening to somebody playing from that generation playing that music, I respect it a lot. But if I listen to somebody from my generation, well, if he's learning, that's one thing. But if he thinks that's the only kind of music, that's not good."
One person he doesn't have to explain all this to is Angelique Kidjo, who sings on two songs on the album. They come from the same town, Ouidah. Her spots here return the favor he did playing on her wide-ranging new 'Oyo' album, as discussed in a recent Around the World.
"I've known her long, long, long," he says. "My older brother was playing with her in high school. Her mom and my mom are from the same village and grew up together."
The two songs she sings on are the opening, Ami O,' originated by Cameroon artist Ebanda Manfred and popular in Benin when the two were growing up and suggested for these sessions by Kidjo, and the traditional 'Vi Ma Yon.' The latter, Loueke says, is the one that reminds him most of home.
Lionel Loueke, 'Vi Ma Yon'
"We don't even know who wrote that one," he says. "It's a really traditional song from Benin. Really, really grew up listening to that in so many different configurations. Heard so many traditional singers singing it. 'Vi Ma Yon' is about how important it is to have children, to have a kid. Deeper than that, the words are so old, even when I see the words I have to go back to understand. It's a song that most of the time they sing it to give like an offering to the king or queen. In Abomey, a town in Benin where that kind of groove comes from, they sing it when they do an offering, offer food or a goat or something."
Connecting that to the ultramodern musical concepts he embraced in Paris would seem a stretch, but as Loueke discovered in his studies, African roots and inspiration were not scarce in the new music.
"Definitely going deeper into their music I realized that those guys all drew on African music," he says. "Coltrane has a song, 'Dahomey Dance.' Dahomey was the old name of Benin [until 1975]. Wayne Shorter, Herbie, they all played with African musicians and incorporated that into their music. I can hear that. And what I learned gave me courage to keep going in what I do to learn the other side."
Several highlights mine that for great artistic riches. 'L.L.,' written for Loueke by Nemeth, and the solo guitar 'Intro to L.L.,'take great flights across cultures and continents with personal spirit. Another trio piece, Loueke's 'Griot,' showcases his guitar sense in a setting that once might have been called "fusion" but transcends all the clichés that came to saddle that genre.
And the closing 'Hide Life' brings a playfulness straight out of African traditions with the vocal and instrumental sparring with Bona, who took a similar path to the American jazz scene from Cameroon. The title makes a pun on "highlife," the skittering West African dance style that's been among the most influential of the content's popular sounds for decades and loomed large for both these musicians in their youth, taking him back to his years of learning by transcribing guitar parts from recordings by Congolese stars Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau and, of course, such Nigerian Afropop titans as Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé. The words, though, are about the gossip that infects any culture, from a small village in Benin to Loueke's current home of New York.
"The lyrics of that song are about people always trying to get in your business," he says, laughing. "It's not their business! It's a happy song -- we're inviting each other to forget about those people who try to stop the good part of life. So I said sometimes you have to hide yourself. Should be high in life, but I prefer hide in life!"
He's not hiding much, though. Loueke will be touring to promote the album, and back in Benin he's stepping up efforts to nourish interests in music. He's overseeing the construction and staffing of a music school, and on his last trip he did everything he could to encourage some budding performers.
"I discovered some young musicians I want to help because they're very talented," he says. "So much talent, but they need help. They remind me how I was when I was like them, trying to get out and learn. For example, there's a bass player named Manu, 22 or 23, has never left the country. I played a concert with him, we played. He has no place to play jazz, but he had a group they started. They know more than 150 standards. You just name it and they know it. But there's no place for them to play. I'm amazed how they can get to that level. They just go on the Internet, download some tunes and learn to read, everything. I already asked Berklee to give him a scholarship. Hopefully, he can have that."
And then perhaps young Manu can help open more ears -- on both sides of the cultural equation.