Lionel Loueke: 'It’s beyond the music. It’s the spirit, the human nature'

The jazz player from Benin on convincing his family to let him purse a career in music, and how it led all the way to the White House

 Lionel Loueke: ‘I didn’t go to Paris to play African music, I got to Paris to play jazz’.   Photograph:  Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Lionel Loueke: ‘I didn’t go to Paris to play African music, I got to Paris to play jazz’. Photograph: Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

 

At first glance, Lionel Loueke’s early life looks like an African musical boyhood straight out of central casting: banging on anything that made a noise from an early age; saving for a year to buy his first guitar; using bicycle cables for strings; dreaming of one day playing his music around the world. It all fits a certain narrative of musicians from the developing world as romantic heroes, battling the odds to bring their own exotic brand of musical redemption to jaded western ears.

But the story of one of contemporary jazz’s most distinctive voices is more complex and nuanced. Born in 1973 in Benin, a small vertical strip of west Africa sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, Loueke had a relatively privileged upbringing. His father was a university mathematics professor and his mother was a schoolteacher, and at first, neither particularly approved of their son’s musical aspirations.

“It was pretty much a fight with my dad for years,” says Loueke with a smile. “My parents wanted a lawyer, or a doctor, one of those, you know? It took me years to really prove to them that this was what I wanted to do.”

Although he grew up playing percussion in traditional Beninese groups – the local equivalent of learning the piano or singing in the church choir – it wasn’t until the age of 17 that he dared to pick up his older brother’s guitar.

“When he caught me playing his guitar, I thought he was going to smash me,” says Loueke, laughing quietly, “but he said ‘No man, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to do it right. I will show you.’ ”

It was a jazz-loving friend of his brother’s, returning from Paris with a few precious LPs, that really turned the young Lionel’s head. He had grown up listening to African pop music – he mentions Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé and Miriam Makeba – but the first time he heard George Benson’s 1978 classic Weekend in LA, everything changed.

“I couldn’t believe he was playing the guitar. I had never heard anything close to that in my life up to that point. So I decided to do some transcriptions, because I wanted to learn those phrases.”

But there was another parental obstacle – he wasn’t allowed to touch the record player in the living room, so he had to wait until Sundays when his parents went out to church. Then he would position his little cassette recorder in front of the speakers and tape whatever borrowed vinyl he could get his hands on. He would spend long days poring over his cassettes, learning every phrase by heart, not realising that Benson was improvising.

“I had no idea,” he exclaims. “That’s actually how I started singing too. I couldn’t speak a word of English, you know, so everything was by ear, just like the music. I was just imitating the sounds of the words and trying to sing like him. Before that, I was singing south African songs, Congolese songs, but when I heard George Benson, it was completely different. Here was somebody singing the notes with the guitar and that got completely under my skin.”

Within a year, Loueke had overcome parental disapproval and embarked on a marathon, continent-hopping music education that took him first to the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast, then to the American School of Modern Music in Paris, and finally in 1999, to Berklee College of Music in Boston.

At every stage, the young guitarist was soaking up the influences that were coming at him from every direction – he remembers his amazement at hearing Coltrane for the first time – and for a while ignoring his African roots.

“It’s like a language. For me, it was never going to go anyway. Like, I will forget my mother tongue? There was no way it was going to happen. When I went to France, I knew there were a lot of African musicians playing African music, but I never got in touch with them, because for me, I didn’t go to Paris to play African music, I got to Paris to play jazz.”

But at Berklee, he hooked up with two musicians who are still his regular collaborators – Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth – and together, they began to develop a musical language that fused eastern European rhythms with his own African roots.

By the time he auditioned for the post-graduate programme at the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles, before a panel that included some of the greats of US jazz, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard, the sound of Africa had found its way back into his playing, and it was clear to his listeners that here was a new jazz voice, fresh and original but redolent of the roots they all shared. Before he had finished the two-year course, he had already performed with Shorter and Hancock and was touring with Blanchard. In 2008, he was invited to join Hancock’s band.

For a musician with such a thirst for knowledge, playing with Hancock was an education at a whole new level, but perhaps the great pianist was also looking to learn something from his young African recruit.

“I think those guys, they learn everyday from anybody, and that’s what makes them the strongest guys. It’s beyond the music. It’s the spirit, the human nature, you know, how can you be better in your head.”

“I’m sure they’re learning something from me too,” he adds modestly. “I don’t know what, but with that spirit they have – they have the spirit of a child, you know, fresh and thirsty to learn, every single time, no ego, very humble. That’s the best way to learn. I’m sure they learn from everybody.”

So, with fans like Shorter and Hancock, a contract with the iconic Blue Note label and a growing international reputation, have his parents finally come round to their son’s career?

The genial guitarist laughs again. “You know, I played at the White House last year, and I took a photograph with president Obama. And my father framed it that big” – a beaming Loueke spreads his long arms wide – “in the living room. He’s really proud.”

The Lionel Loueke Trio, with Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth, play the Bray Jazz Festival on Friday, April 28th. brayjazz.com

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