In conversation with lionel loueke
By Ted Panken
A consistent pleasure at this year's edition of Umbria Jazz Winter at Orvieto was the presence of Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke's superb trio with Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth. The band used their six-night residence to great advantage, stretching out and developing repertoire from Loueke's 2008 Blue Note release, Karibu.
The intense simpatico of this trio—heard on Loueke's leadership debut, Virgin Forest, and twice as the collective unit Gilfema (Gilfema and Gilfema +2), is the result of long acquaintance. They met as classmates at Berklee School of Music at the end of the '90s. The brought their friendship to the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles, and have flourished in the pressure-cooker that is New York City, where they all now reside.
Their experience as a working trio coincides with Loueke's fast-moving career since he left the Monk Institute in 2003. His itinerary has included steady touring with Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock, numerous solo concerts, and, until about two years ago, frequent sideman and collaborative gigs at workshop-oriented New York venues like the Jazz Gallery, 55 Bar, and Fat Cat, with emerging artists like Gretchen Parlato, Yosvany Terry, Jeff Ballard, Jason Lindner, Robert Glasper, and Avishai Cohen (the trumpeter), as well as established stars like Jeff Watts and Richard Bona.
Loueke's calling card is his singular ability to transform a nylon-string, hollow-bodied, electrified acoustic guitar into a sort of virtual, real-time Afro-Western orchestra. He writes traditional-sounding songs in Fon and Mina dialects and sings them with a resonant tenor voice. He improvises with cat-like, off-the-grid phrasing, creating harmonic progressions from an up-to-the-second lexicon, and articulates his lines with self-invented fingering and looping techniques that elicit the timbres of such indigenous homeland instruments as the kalimba, kora, and djembe. And he executes it all with enough virtuoso authority to bliss out the most demanding guitar-head. King Sunny Ade meets Pat Metheny meets Derek Bailey might be the Hollywood pitch.
The 36 year-old Loueke is now international presence, thanks in large part to Hancock's willingness to showcase his skills in extended unaccompanied features, and to conceptualize these tours de force as a major component of his own presentation. In 2008, Loueke spent so much time on tour with Herbie, the trio performed infrequently. Their relative absence added to the allure of hearing them stretch-out in the intimate venues assigned to them by Umbria Jazz.
As I recall, three years ago you said that if you could only take six months off ...
... you could work on this thing you were hearing, and reach the next level. I have a feeling that hasn't happened.
It hasn't happened, and I'm still looking for it. Now I'm not looking for six months. Now I'm looking for like a month to stop.
How are Gilfema and the Lionel Loueke Trio different entities?
We use Gilfema when we play music from everyone. When we play the Lionel Loueke Trio, it's only my music, or maybe I play their tunes, but I'm the one calling the tunes. Herbie is not keeping me busy this year, so I have more free time to do my own thing. Basically, from March to May, we'll be touring—all of March in Europe—as the Lionel Loueke Trio.
I can't pinpoint this assertion, but Karibu seems more layered than your previous recording. Of course, having Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on it doesn't hurt. But it's not just them.
I always like to take different directions. It all depends on the moment, what I'm working-on, or how I feel connected to the music. Karibu definitely is different than Virgin Forest. Virgin Forest was a more produced record. I recorded some tracks with musicians in Africa, and even overdubbed some of the stuff. But Karibu is all played in a live context. The idea was for me to have the CD sound pretty much the way I play on stage. Just the organic part of it. It's not perfect. It's just what it is.
Did you write new compositions for it? There are two standards, of course—'Skylark' and 'Naima' with Wayne Shorter.
Yes, because the Blue Note people asked me to do it, but also I wanted to play standards because I like them. The title [track], 'Karibu,' was new. 'Xala' was new.
A lot of your work over the prior two years was in the context of Herbie Hancock's various bands. When I saw the band this summer, you did a solo feature on 'Seven Teens' before 10,000 people, and you were playing before these large audiences constantly. I don't think Terence Blanchard was playing in those kind of venues.
Is it a challenge to do what you do in these less intimate contexts?
It's a big challenge. Every gig Herbie gives me space to play a solo piece. So to play a solo in front of 20,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 is a big difference, especially when the audience is far back. I like to feel the vibe from the audience. Obviously, Herbie knows how to manage those big rooms. One thing I learned with him is that once you're out there, you have to focus and do the best you can, whether there are two people or 15,000. I'm learning so much musically with him. That's one reason I don't want to stop playing with him—plus he gives me so much space, and also the way he carries the whole band and the way he plays differently night to night is a real lesson. Besides that, just who he is as a human being and what he's been doing. All those things affect my playing and my writing, as well.
Give me an example.
My writing lately has been very different. Especially on the last tour, we played music by Wayne Shorter, and Herbie also did a new arrangement of 'Speak Like a Child,' on which he did an introduction. It was inspiring to hear how he developed that introduction every single night. It opened my ears. I'm trying to get that same kind of vibe when I compose, not think too much, but at the same time get that freshness.
I didn't see the fall tour, but I heard a concert from it, and it was very different from the summer tour, which was almost like an arena show.
As I said, we're always playing something different. The summer was a tour for his record, The River, and pretty much my role was more to color things, not always playing, but always trying to find the right moment to interact. But on the last tour we had no singer, so it was more playing-oriented. My function was similar to what it was in the summer, but more open. But playing with Herbie is the greatest thing. When I finish playing with Herbie, it's hard either to listen to a piano player or play with a piano player, because I start hearing some stuff naturally, and then I realize it's not him. I don't know how to describe it. The only person I listen to who makes me feel the same is Brad Mehldau. Mehldau is very strong, he has his own thing, but after Mehldau or McCoy or people like that, it's very hard.
In 2005 you played trio with Herbie and Wayne in Japan, which must have factored into your concept for Karibu.
Yes, it helped me a lot. Because of it, I wasn't nervous, and already had some ideas of where this can go within my own thing. I had them both in mind when I wrote 'Lights Dark.' Very open.
Did the title denote in any way your sense of the way they play, the contrasts?
Exactly. Wayne Shorter is one of my favorite composers of all time, and if you listen to Wayne's melodies, you can sing them all day long. The harmony may be complex, but supports the melody in the right way. That's exactly what I tried to get on that tune. The melody was very simple and the harmony can go anywhere.
Last night it was my impression that you only prepared the strings once. You took out paper, inserted it on the fretboard, and got a kalimba sort of sound. But other than that, all the sounds were extracted from the pedals and your hands. Are you preparing the guitar less now?
I just feel like people start thinking about me in one context, but I don't want to lock myself into one thing. Most people think about the way I play the African thing and the paper—which is great. That's what I do. That's who I am. But I don't want to lock myself into just that one direction. I still want to play standards, still want to do everything, but still be me.
But it seemed you were getting those sounds without preparing the guitar.
Oh, yes. The paper thing gives me one sound. I want to be able to switch between the normal sound and the mute sound, so I've been working on how to mute without the paper, where the sound won't be the same, but it will be close.
You were pointing to your palm. Apart from being interdependent with both hands, do you have interdependence between the muscles in each hand?
Exactly. That's where I'm getting to now. I can come from legato, I can go to staccato and mute, everything, without putting paper in. If I need the paper, like I did yesterday for one tune, I do it. But the rest, I can do it in a different way.
When you say that you need time off to work on your concept, don't you have a fair amount of free time when you're on the road with Herbie Hancock?
Oh, no! Herbie's fall tour, the last one, was a little easier, but most of the tours we play five, six, sometimes nine gigs in a row in different cities, so there's no break, meaning you have to wake up at 5. There's no time to practice. We had a day off in Istanbul, and some people went out. I preferred just to lock myself in and write music, because that's really the only time I have. But even if I go out, I always find time to write music.
If you had that ever-elusive month off, how would you practice? How much is physical? How much is thinking?
I think definitely it would be more physical. I am thinking constantly anyway. The way I hear my playing, I want it to be close to the piano context, where I support my playing harmonically at the same time; I want to have the right technique to play melody and harmony, and make them sometimes very clear, sometimes very confused. But that requires a lot of practicing. Since I have a different tuning, I have a lot to learn to execute that. I can hear those things in my head, but they're not in my fingers. I need to put them in my fingers.
Let's talk about your background. You went from Cotonou [Benin's largest city] to Ivory Coast when you were 17 to study classical music.
I stayed in Ivory Coast for three years, and there I studied the harmony of classical music. Before that, in Benin, I was of course playing a lot of traditional music and African modern music which involved the guitar, but a different way of playing. So Ivory Coast was the first music school where I could learn how to write music basically, but not jazz.
Are you from a musical family?
Yes, because my older brother was playing music professionally. My Dad was not a musician, but he played a little bit of guitar. My grandfather was a traditional singer back in the village.
So you grew up in the city, but your grandparents had been in the village before that.
You use a lot of traditional music forms in your compositions. Was that something you heard a lot growing up? Was it part of your daily life?
Definitely. I always have these colors which come from my background... The colors in my compositions come from Africa in general, but mostly from Benin, because I know more music from there.
Did you study it systematically, or is it just part of you?
I think it's part of me. Until I moved to Ivory Coast, I never really studied music, but just was playing extensively with friends or with my brother. Even when I studied music, I always tried to find what was natural and what I needed. I don't believe that you have to pass through a school absolutely to play music. I always keep that natural aspect of music.
What sparked your interest in guitar? I gather that one time you transformed bicycle brake cable into strings and put it on a frame.
Since my older brother was playing guitar, it was the first instrument in the house I could touch. Second, it was easier to get a guitar compared to a piano at that time. Once I got my guitar, the second problem was how to find strings. Even now it's hard to get guitar strings there. One day I had to play somewhere and I broke the string, so I used the brake cable as a string. But the thing is that the tension is very hard for the instrument, especially in Africa where it's so humid, so I broke the guitar neck after two weeks.
This is the '80s, a lot of African musicians were recording for international labels, and African guitar was becoming a distinctive entity in the West. King Sunny Ade was getting big, Ebeneezer Obey. Ali Farka Toure was making his first records for the West. Was that something you were thinking about or listening to?
Yes, I was listening to it. In Africa, I put together a band that was playing African music, so we were transcribing all that stuff—Sunny Ade, Fela, music by any of those musicians. That gave me a chance to know more about how to approach African guitar playing. At the same time, I was checking out other instruments, like kora or sanza, the thumb piano. In my mind, I love that sound, and I always thought about how I could get it playing guitar. I could be a kora player, but the problem is it's not chromatic, so you only can play in a certain key or a certain scale. But guitar is completely chromatic; you can play anything. So I always tried to learn those scales on guitar, how I can get it on there.
Were you listening to things other than African music at the time?
Yes. Before I played guitar, too, but especially when I started playing guitar I started listening more to the guitar players from America or Europe. The first guitar player I listened to was Django Reinhardt, and then I discovered a blues with B.B. King. I checked it all out.
Sometimes you hear music, and it touches you directly although you don't know what they're doing. You just feel something. That's how I got involved in Occidental music, playing rock and blues. It was new for me—completely new harmony. As an African musician, I didn't think they were improvising, especially in the blues, for example. I thought everything was just part of the song, because the way we do it in Africa is you sing, and then you play, and then you have the verse ... So my mindset was more about it's not improvisation, until I discovered otherwise. I thought, 'Oh!' So I got more curious …
When you played Afropop in your teenage band, were you improvising, or were you playing verbatim what Sunny Ade or other people were doing?
Yes, it was more repeating the phrases from Sunny Ade or stuff. It wasn't really improvisation. I was more improvising by playing percussion, which was more the improvisational aspect of the African music I was playing at that time.
Your style is very much about the guitar as a sound-making instrument. Did this interest begin during that time as well?
Not really. That came after I studied harmony, and learned more about sound harmonically. Then I started returning to my background as a percussionist, back to the sound of the percussion, how I can mix both. You go deeper and deeper into sound instead of just the notes.
Why did you go to conservatory in Ivory Coast? Not everybody who makes money playing music moves to classical music. They just stay with popular music, and play in bands and can live pretty comfortably. You were more ambitious.
Yes, definitely. I didn't want to lock myself into only playing African music. The first reason I moved to Ivory Coast was that Ivory Coast was the only country in West Africa where I could study music.
Just music. But that was the only place that had a conservatory at that time. So in Benin I couldn't study, in Nigeria I couldn't study. My first thing was, 'I want to study; I want to be able to write music.' That was the first reason I moved to Ivory Coast. Then the classical music helped me a lot for my writing and even my ears, because I hadn't been exposed to that music at all. Now, when I was in Africa I was playing with some great musicians, and I could have just stayed there and have my life. Even on Ivory Coast, when I finished, they asked me to stay there to teach, but I said no. I knew that I wasn't ready. I knew that I wanted step-by-step to move to France and study other stuff that I couldn't get on Ivory Coast.
Did anyone help you intellectually towards finding that path, or was this just something within you?
It was more in me. My father is an intellectual. He's retired now, but he was a professor of mathematics. He came to Europe, studied in Canada. He wanted me to become a lawyer or something …
So he's of the first generation of post-colonial Africa, of the new nations?
Exactly. My mother was a teacher at the high school.
So you're not coming from the village. You're coming from a cosmopolitan, sophisticated family within an urban environment.
Definitely. Cotonou. Then I went to France. In France I studied at the American School. All the teachers were American. It was perfect for me, because I wanted to study jazz. I didn't want to go from Ivory Coast to the States, because I had the language barrier. I couldn't speak English at all, so it would be an easier transition to pass through France.
So this is a very systematic process. You knew exactly what you wanted to do.
Oh, yeah. It was very clear in my mind.
Tell me about the Paris scene. It's noted for the influence of Sub-Saharan and North African musicians on the total sound.
Oh, yes. There are a lot of musicians from Africa in Paris. I guess the first reason is the language. Most other countries in West Africa where there is African music are old French colonies, so they all speak French. As a first step for us, it is easier to go to France and be able to speak the language at least.
The music scene over there was great. The jazz scene was big. I think Paris is probably the biggest jazz scene in Europe. I was studying, but I wasn't playing in the scene. I was more locking myself in after classes and practicing.
Is that when you developed your technique?
Exactly. Because at that moment, I had the materials and I had the harmony. Everything I'd been looking for over the years, I had next to me. So I could work, practice ... Anyway, I wasn't ready to be playing on the scene.
But were you listening to the Paris scene?
Yeah. I was going out a lot. Bireli Lagrene ...
The Django guitar players.
Yes. There were so many.
Were you listening to any of the avant-garde folks, like Steve Lacy? Certain things you do remind me of a European post-jazz approach to guitar.
The funniest part was that Steve Lacy and all this kind of avant-garde stuff was in Paris, but I wasn't listening to it. Actually, when I moved to the States, after Berklee, I went back to listen to that stuff. When I moved to Paris, that's where I discovered, for example, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock. I heard about Miles before, but not really his music. Everything was new for me. I had to study all that music and understand what's going on before I go to the avant-garde stuff.
By the time you left Paris, was the style we hear now in place?
I think the style was already inside me, but it wasn't out at all.
You weren't able to articulate it.
No. I knew that once I got the vocabulary, I would go to that step. But I need to have the maximum information before I do that. So it was clear, but it wasn't clear like it is today. So I was dealing with different stuff, like putting paper or a comb through the strings to get a sound—but nothing compared to what I'm doing now.
But you weren't doing that by inspiration from avant-garde European music. You were doing it to get the sounds that you heard as a kid.
Exactly. For me, it was more about the kalimba or the kora, to try to get a djembe, or different sounds. But not thinking avant-garde at all.
So then, in 1999 you come to the States and study at Berklee.
I got a scholarship to Berklee, so I went to Berklee for three years. That was a great experience. It was still the same jazz, but completely different in energy—and even between the students, how we were playing. I didn't have that experience when I was in France. It was perfect to be playing like three sessions per day, six hours a day just with friends.
You arrived in the States in the middle of this great movement to the States, especially New York, of musicians from around the world—Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Pedro Martinez from Cuba, Miguel Zenon from Puerto Rico, other musicians from the Southern Americas, the Israeli musicians, etc. Was the imperative to mix genres, styles, and cultures in place at Berklee?
Exactly. For example, I met my trio at Berklee, and we were already trying different stuff, playing traditional music from Hungary, where Ferenc is from. At Berklee, I had a lot of Brazilian friends, and two or three of us were from southern Africa. So yes, we were listening together, playing together, sharing all our cultures—it was the place where all the cultures were mixing. Plus the harmony and the real jazz repertoire.
Then came the Monk Institute.
After Berklee, I was thinking of coming to New York, and one of my teachers, Hal Crook, asked me, 'Did you hear about the Monk Institute?' I said, 'No, what's that?' He explained to me that it's a music school where they pay your tuition, they give you a stipend, they pay your housing. I said, 'Boy, that could be good.' He said that the board are people like Ron Carter, Herbie, Wayne Shorter. I said, 'Oh, that could be a good transition.' So I went for the audition. You send a tape, and they choose three per instrument, and they fly us to L.A. for the final audition. We played in front of Herbie, Wayne, Terence, Charlie Haden, all those guys. That's how I met them.
You played with all the judges, didn't you?
Yeah. Lucky. I was there from 2001 to 2003. I studied with Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, Terence … After my first year, I started playing with Terence, but I couldn't play other gigs, because the school's rules stated I had to be there every day, and they didn't want to let me go on the road because the other guys would say they had other stuff to go to, too. It was tricky. I wasn't too happy about it, because I was thinking our goal is to play with those guys, to learn from those guys on the road. At the same time, I understood what they were saying. So I had to go on the road with Terence on the weekend, or during the break. So I wasn't playing with Terence full-time
You seem to fit very nicely with the ideas Terence was working with, and your ability to conceptualize African melodies and rhythms and textures gave him a sound that hadn't been in his groups before.
I think he has great ears in terms of conception. He told me before that he checked out some African music, and it's hard to have an African musician in his band because most of the African musicians don't deal with deep harmony. They play very well African music, but when it comes to jazz harmony they're kind of lost. I was the guy who could do both. I could sing—try to sing—and play, and it was perfect for him. And for me, too, to learn to be in a professional band. He gave me plenty of room to express myself, which was remarkable.
Once you started studying jazz, who were some of the jazz guitarists you drew vocabulary from? You don't really sound like anybody else.
Yeah, but I did check it out. Still, up to today my favorite guitar player is Wes Montgomery. Just how he was dealing with new concepts at that time was exceptional, and also knowing that he became famous very late. I'm sure it took him years and years to develop that concept of playing. But I like them all. I'm a good friend of John Scofield; I like John. I like all the Pats [Metheny, Martino]. I checked all of them out just to understand where to go with the instrument, what they're doing with the instrument. Then when I started focusing on what I wanted to do, I knew exactly where I want to go, or to where I can build myself.
Then in 2003, you move to New York.
Yes. While at Berklee, I came to New York maybe two or three times for gigs. Nothing big. Just friends from Berklee. After the Monk Institute, I had more confidence in myself.
You felt prepared.
You look like a guy who probably 20 people can tell you you're ready, but you won't come until you think the time is right.
Yes. Of course, the concept still wasn't too cool. But I had to go to New York and be ready to learn, because so much was going on. I came here in May. I'd played with Bob Hurst in L.A., and he came to town for IAJE and invited me to play with Jeff Watts and him in trio. Then things just started coming. I started playing with Tain, and then I had my own gig to which I invited Tain and Richard Bona, which was fun.
You recently did a concert with Richard Bona. Had you met him in Paris?
Here in New York. He was in France when I was there, but at that time I wasn't really talking to anybody—I was just practicing.
It was interesting, because your personalities are so different.
Oh yeah. We're very different. But it works because the African element is very strong. We both know the rules. That concert was fun for me, because it was two different musicians with their own thing but at the same time with something in common. Usually, when you play that type of music, you have to explain to people, 'This is one.' they have their one, I have my one, and it doesn't matter—it works. But with him ... [laughs] We have the same one! We feel it the same way.
Anyway, in New York I started playing with different people—Jeff Ballard, Avishai Cohen. Through Avishai, I met Jason Lindner, Greg Hutchinson, all those people.
In your opinion, what links these people? What are the common threads of interest?
I think it's the originality. All those young, well-known guys have their own way to play. They don't sound like anybody. For me, from playing with all those people and playing with Herbie, the thing people like about my playing is probably that. It doesn't sound like Wes or Pat Metheny or Scofield, but it's just different. Different means you may like it or you may not, but it is different. All those guys have their own personal sound. Guys like Herbie and Wayne and Pat love to play with young musicians, but the problem, they think, is that there aren't that many young players trying to be themselves. Herbie told me that, for example, if there's a great guitar player who is playing like Pat Metheny, why would he hire him? He'd better hire Pat. Pat told me the same thing. I think all those guys are looking for people who are not afraid to try different things and be themselves.
But you probably could have played professionally while you were in France, or at least at Berklee. For someone who's as careful and prepares as much as you, it must be challenging not to judge yourself, to be in the moment and improvise, to give up the idea of self-criticism.
I'll bet you're very self-critical.
I am. But I just try to be myself, and go for whatever I'm hearing. I don't question myself twice. It's almost like the information comes in and goes out. I think that's how those guys think. It's almost like you learn and you forget; I learned all that stuff, and now I put them in my bag and go to play without... Like Wayne always said, every time he blows his horn, he's thinking it's the first time he's touching the instrument. So it becomes new. Everything you play is going to be fresh. Basically, you don't know what it's going to sound like.
I hate to harp on your thirteen years of study before hitting the scene, but your patience, your unwillingness to do something before its proper time, is exceptional. The temptations must have been great. I'm sure there were times you were just eating noodles because you weren't working.
It's hard for people to talk about their own character. But have you always been this patient?
Yeah. There are two things. First, I always want to push my limit. I always want to get to something else. Even if I take a month off, even if I take six months off, I still want to find something else. The second thing is, I am always looking for new things for myself, because somehow on standards I get a little bored. I always try to find a new direction harmonically, melodically, technically, on the instrument. Now I'm less patient than I used to be. Before I knew that this is my goal, and I take whatever time it takes. I'm going to get it. Now I have more pressure, doing gigs on my own, I have two kids—so I have less time to accomplish those things. I feel more like I don't want to waste my time.
You could eat noodles, but you can't make them do that.
Exactly. But at the same time ... For example, I'm here for a week. Normally I would come by myself, and that's the perfect time for me to do something. But I haven't seen my family for three months. So I am less patient than I used to be.
But also, you're playing with someone who is a great virtuoso, but seems not to unduly sweat over the things you worry about.
I wonder if that's had an effect on you.
Definitely. I've asked Herbie many times how he does it, and he always tells me he used to practice a lot. He said, 'I practiced for hours and hours. Of course, now I don't practice, but I practice a lot in my head.' I practice in my head, too. But he is able to just put it out, because he has practiced for many hours and has it in his fingers. I don't.
Well, your concept is also about extended techniques. Trying to be interdependent with your thumb and fingers involves muscle memory. Herbie Hancock's muscle memory has been there since he was six. He's not playing like Cecil Taylor.
Yes. He's thinking more harmonically and melodically and of different types of colors. I'm thinking of that less, but thinking more about the technique, how I can divide the whole instrument like mutes, be able to get the bass strings, the four lower strings, and open the higher strings—or vice-versa—so that when you hear my playing you hear something very legato and mute at the same time. Even if I haven't heard anybody do it, I know it is possible, because when I try, sometimes it comes out. But not every time.
Now, of course, it's becoming natural for me to do it. But I think in my life there was a moment where I had a click between my background as a percussionist and all this stuff I learned. I found finally the way to mix them; finally it became the same thing. Before, it wasn't the same thing. When I was playing as a kid, I knew all those rhythms, but I never really used them in a jazz context or an improvisational context. But then I realized, 'Oh, okay, all these rhythms go together; I can play them through my lines and I can support them with the harmony.' So everything came together and became my vocabulary. I grew up with the rhythm, it's more natural for me, but I spent much more time on the harmony and melody. So when I put them together, it became something.
As a kid playing percussion instruments, did you study the rhythms in a codified way? Systematic? Did somebody teach you to do one rhythm this way, do another that rhythm that way? I know that in Africa, different rhythms have different functions, different meanings. Did you learn it in that manner?
I learned more like that at the beginning. You play with older guys, people who grew up in the villages who know the name of the rhythm, and they tell you exactly how it's supposed to be played. You have to follow them. When we were kids, we were like a group of 9 or 8, and everybody has a different pattern, basically. Someone is going to have bells, and they just play that pattern through the whole song. So I learned all different patterns to make the one rhythm, and I know the name of the rhythm. When I was 14, when I know more about the rhythm, then I started getting more liberated, because in each rhythm there's a soloist, basically. There are a lot of accompanists doing the same groove while the lead is taking the solo. Once I started playing the lead, it becomes more interesting for me, because I can try different stuff.
Also in traditional African culture, music tells a story because it comes from the context of ritual. Does that stick with you? When you play, is there some sort of narrative, something beyond just musical ideas going on?
Yes, definitely. That's the reason I called my solo CD In A Trance, because it's beyond just a musical concept. It's more about ... Well, it's the trance. I think it happens to every musician. Maybe it lasts two seconds or three seconds, but you get that zone where you feel everything or nothing. It's almost like you're taking off. In Africa, I went through a lot of different cults and learned the music. If you hear the drum like this, it means this. In the old school, it's how they call people; the talking drums was kind of the language. I did basically some ethnomusicology, as well, when I was in Ivory Coast, going to the different villages and recording it.
I once did a radio show with Richard Bona, and he said that when he first heard Ray Brown play a walking bass line, he could trace it to a village near where he grew up in Cameroon.
Does that happen for you here listening to American jazz?
Yeah, I've got that. Even being in Africa, I remember the first time I heard B.B. King. I was like, 'Man, this is the north of Benin, where they have a special way to play ... there's a three-string instrument that sounds like ....' Of course, in African music is a lot of pentatonics. But the way he bends the notes, just three notes, it reminds me so much of Africa, because I can hear where that comes from. I have tapes. I can play B.B. King and then play the tape from Africa, and you say, 'Man, it's almost the same thing.'
You played on Charlie Haden's Land of The Sun, where Gonzalo Rubalcaba arranged a suite of boleros, and you've also played a lot with Cuban musicians. Is that a natural fit?
Yes. Every time I play with Cuban musicians or Brazilian musicians, it's very natural, because they have a lot of African influences in the culture. Yosvany Terry told me that in Cuba they have a special place for Benin when they play. He was singing me even a song in Yoruba, which comes from Benin. It's all related. That explains why I feel natural. My Mom's last name is Monteiro, which is Brazilian. Benin is an old colony of the French and Portuguese, and we have last names in my Mom's village like Santos, DeMenderos, all those. They play a rhythm called bourian, which is pure Brazilian music, and they sing in Portuguese. In my Mom's village, people still speak in Portuguese.
So it's a natural fit. I once read a comparison of your approach to Egberto Gismonti.
Yes, I think I heard. It was funny, because I knew the name but I didn't know his music. I went to listen to his stuff, and I said, 'Yeah, definitely it has some elements.'
What music are you listening to lately?
Lately, mostly classical. If I go to jazz, I will listen to Wayne most of the time. But I'm listening a lot to classical lately—Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, all the contemporary composers. When I listen again to my heroes, Wayne and Herbie, I start hearing those elements. Lately, if I listen to Wayne, what he's been doing to classical music and classical instruments, complete with the quartet, it's very inspired.
Do you ever go back and listen to African music, or is it something that's just there because it was so much of your early ...
I can't say that I listen to it that much. If somebody gives me CDs, I'll put them on my iPod. I have tapes from back home that I listen to, but it's mostly pure traditional, percussion-and-voice or just percussion. I listen to those things. The last six months, though, I haven't.
You mentioned learning the jazz canon, including Herbie Hancock's work, in Paris. When you were a young guy, assimilating influences, were you listening at all to Herbie Hancock's music?
I heard something when I started music, when I was doing the break dance thing, but I had no idea it was Herbie Hancock. I was playing 'Cantaloupe Island' or 'Watermelon Man,' but I had no clue who wrote them.
Were you playing those songs with African bands?
Exactly. My older brother was playing those songs in a band. When I started learning, they taught me those songs, so I was playing without knowing who wrote them.
Because of time constraints, you haven't been able to play as much on the New York scene as you used to. You were playing with Avishai Cohen's African project, Yosvany Terry, Gretchen Parlato, so many people.
I miss that, I have to say. The main reason I moved to New York was to do that, but I knew that if I started getting busy it would be hard to do it. Plus, once you start playing the clubs, playing a gig at the Jazz Standard under your name, they don't want you to go back and play at the Jazz Gallery under your name. I didn't really think about those little things before, but now everything is contract. You have to wait six weeks to play. That's one thing.
But also, I'm not there any more like I used to be. Between Herbie's tour and this week, I was home for a week. After here, I go home for not even a week, and then I'm out again to play in Boston with the Gilfema project. Then I'm going home, taking ten days to see my parents in Cotonou. Then, when I'm in New York for three or four days and I haven't seen the family for three months, it is hard to tell your wife, 'Ok, I am going into the city to play.'
So in 2009, you won't be out so much with Herbie, and you'll be touring in March and April with the Lionel Loueke Trio.
Yes. In February we go to New Orleans for some dates for ten days or two weeks, and all of March we'll be in Europe—Spain, Greece, U.K. Then back in the States touring in April as well. So we start getting busy. Miles Winston, my agent, is keeping me busy.
Will Gilfema do things in 2009?
No. We started with Gilfema, and now Gilfema is kind of dying. The last CD is very much because we owed an optional CD to ObliqSound. We had to do it. We don't have any more projects. Everybody is busy, and if I cannot keep them busy, they have to work. When they are not working with me, Massimo is working with Ravi Coltrane or Paquito. So they're all busy doing their thing, and they all have their own CDs, so that they have their own project. In May we're going on the road under Ferenc's name with other people. So they have their own projects as well. One thing about those guys is we really love each other besides the music. We hang a lot together. Even if I'm on the road, we call each other. It's a real family. That comes out in the music every time we play.
You're someone who thinks in the long term. Probably ten years ago, you half-envisioned what you're doing now, maybe not that you'd be on the road with Herbie Hancock ...
Where do you see yourself five years from now, when you're in your forties?
There are a lot of different projects I would love to do.
You were thinking about a string project a few years ago. I haven't seen that yet.
I want to write something for string quartet plus the trio, and it will definitely be the result of all of the classical things I'm listening to now. I want to find guys who can at the same time improvise in a way that there's a real interaction between the trio, or duo, or whatever it is going to be, with the quartet. What I hear most of the time when people do that project, they write something especially for the quartet, and then hear the quartet comping. I don't want that. I want it to be no one is comping for anyone. That project definitely will come out.
I'm also thinking to do another African project—acoustic guitar with African instruments—kora, kalimba, djembe.
And because African instruments aren't chromatic, the orchestration would be the challenge.
Exactly. My job will be to find a way. Because one thing I don't want to do when I use those instruments (that's why I don't use them that much) is to have just one scale and one sound that everybody recognizes. But I've started hearing some young African musicians, especially in Paris, who are starting to play on a chromatic kora. A friend of mine now is playing chromatic balafon. For a long time I've been looking for somebody trying to play those instruments in a different way.
So it's a new instrument.
It's a new instrument, because it's against the tradition. He cannot play that in the village! But that's the way I'm seeing African instruments anyway. One thing is to keep what's already done, what's there. But now I think it's time for the young musicians to take it to a different level.
What kind of response does your music receive in Africa? Are people in Benin hearing Karibu or your other records? Also, let's talk generally about how you address the different attitudes or mentalities that are expressed in African cultures and Western cultures, which operate on very different suppositions, have different core aesthetics behind them.
People in Africa are starting to hear my music. Every time I go to Benin, I play a concert, so they start getting familiar with it. But there is always a new element for them. I did a tour last year in I think 15 countries in Eastern Africa, just solo guitar. I went to Kenya, Tanzania, and down. People see the African element in my playing, then they see the element they are not familiar with. Just like when I play in Europe or in the United States, they can find their way to what I'm doing that's new for them with some of their limits. I like it that way, because my interest is to bring something different as well. I don't want to do something that is already done for both worlds.
The second element: I never lost the way we play in Africa—how the music is related to everyday life and the context, and what you play is definitely to your heart, first of all. When I was in music school, at one point I almost lost that, started becoming very intellectual in everything I was playing. But the good thing is, I found the right moment to say, 'Wait a minute, I don't want to lose this natural thing I have from the beginning without understanding anything about harmony.' So I found my way to go back. Anyway, at this point I'm never going to be able to be the musician I was before, even if I was the most organic musician ever at that time. But now I can't even be that organic, because I have some new elements.
You opened the box.
Exactly. I just don't want to lose that. Anything I'm doing has to come from inside, deeply inside.
What were some of the core principles in the intellectual culture of the West that were fundamental to you as a young person?
For me, it definitely was communism. I grew up seeing my mom making ... I don't know how they call it in English ... They call it defilés, when you see the military walking, like a march, and you see all the teachers, every ... I was a kid, I was doing that, too. If I go to the movie theater, I have to stand up and sing the revolutionary ...
Exactly. The funny thing, sometimes Ferenc and I make a joke and we sing. He sings it in Hungarian and I sing it in French. The same melodies. We both grew up under communist governments.
Interesting. You seem more like a son of the Enlightenment.
I found my way out quick. I think communism definitely has a good point, but there's a lot of things that didn't work with my ...
Well, you have to conform to the program, among other things.
Yes. It wasn't easy. That's actually how I started music. When I was in high school, we had a band, and at the same time we had two hours per week, every Friday to play music. or, if you choose, to do painting—different activities. But they all related to communism. Before you studied, you had to sing and do the military march and everything. Every day. So before you got in the classroom, you'd have to be in line, sing, do the military march, take your seat...
Was the regime Maoist?
Yeah, it was Maoist.
So when you got to Paris and saw the French intellectuals who'd been Maoist in the '60s, you might have had certain thoughts about that.
Yes, exactly. I don't want to get into that. But once I got to Paris, it was a different story. I went to Paris in '94. So it was gone!
Was the regime interested in retaining traditional culture, or were they trying to eliminate traditional culture?
Well, they were confused. For the traditional singers and musicians, the government was asking them to compose using those lyrics. So all they were singing was revolutionary words ...
But with the same rhythms and melodies.
Yeah, it still was traditional. But then we had the other side, where we start learning all the revolutionary songs from Eastern Europe, and I know many of those and play them. I could do a record! I still remember. It's amazing.
Do you have a contract for more recordings with Blue Note?
Yes. I think I have four.
Hopefully, one will be the string project you described.
Yes. One hopefully will be a string project. One will be the same project with African instruments. I'd also love to do a record just playing standards, the way I hear them, but swinging. Even if it's swinging in seven or nine or whatever, it will be swinging.
Ted Panken talked with Lionel Loueke on December 31, 2008, in Orvieto, Italy.