Lionel Loueke is a different type of musician. Not bound by the conventional techniques and thought processes, Loueke has pursued music his entire life through an entirely original set of eyes. Even upon moving from Benin to France and on to Boston where where he was exposed to the history behind the music he pursued, Loueke managed to keep his mind open to the endless possibilities the music allowed him and that has translated into an unmatched sense of originality, rhythmic innovation, and musical bliss. On August 28th, 2012 Lionel will release his most recent endeavor entitled “Heritage” which features co-proudcer and pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Mark Guiliana. In collaboration with Blue Note Records, Revive Music was there to capture the intense moments that led to the creation of this incredible album. Check out our interview with Lionel as well as some footage from the sessions.
Lets start off talking about the new record and how you brought this group together.
I had a meeting with Don Was about two different projects. The project that he liked and I liked was this one. It was clear that this time I wanted to do something more electric. I had a chance to play with Robert Glasper many times here in New York. The whole idea I think came from when I was a special guest with the Experiment, his group. Don Was was there. I played with Herbie and then I was a special guest with Glasper. We played some of my old compositions that they knew. It was great. So I was like, “That’s the band,” you know? Don Was was like, “What about recording with these guys?” I thought it was a great idea because I was thinking the same, you know? But having a different drummer, Mark Guiliana, made a big difference as well. It changed the way Robert sounded. Bringing in a new drummer brings something different. It’s a whole new approach to the music. For me it’s a real dream come true.
What went into creating the compositions for the album?
To start with, I wanted to have simple melodies that people can remember. If you think about it, the most beautiful songs are actually very simple. One of my favorite composers of all time is Wayne Shorter. Wayne taught me that melodies are simple, your harmony may be very complicated, but the harmony is musically like the basement. It makes melodies stick out better because the foundation is strong. So you can write simple melodies if you know how to write harmony behind it. On this particular CD, most of the songs I wrote from the melodies. Usually I may start from the bass line or harmony, but most of this one was on piano. I started from the melody.
It’s about where I come from, the culture I have today. I definitely see a big African influence, but also I have the influence of the West, from Europe, from the United States. A simple way of explaining it is I’m speaking English [laughs]. English is not part of my original roots. Benin was French. I speak French because of that colonization. The colonization, though it had the slavery and everything else, was not completely bad. We learned a lot from the slavery. Culturally speaking we learned a lot about the culture of the West. We learned the language and everything. There was a positive side. There is a good side and a bad side in everything. On this album I’m talking about the good side. I learned to speak French. I learned to speak English. I travelled around the world. I have a big Brazilian culture too because Benin in the beginning was Portuguese and French. One of the songs is called “Ouidah” which was the slave trade in Benin. The place is called Ouidah. It’s the village of my mom. My mother’s grandparents came from Brazil. Believe it or not, my mom’s last name is Montego. In this village Ouidah, you have all Brazilian and Portuguese names. Montego, Santos, all those names. They play music and sing Samba in Portuguese, but they don’t understand it. What happened was, after the slave trade, some of the slaves went back home and brought back the culture with them. So all of those influences are on this CD. “African Ship” is basically the ship going back to Africa after the slavery. I tried to bring in all the emotions of happy, crazy, everything. That tune is very crazy. “Goree” is another slave trade inspired tune.
“Bayyinah” translates into brilliance or a truth. What inspired that?
That’s Glasper’s tune actually. He wrote this song for his aunt-in-law who passed away I think. It’s a beautiful song. He never recorded it, so he came to my place and played it for me. I was like, “We have to record this one.” You know how somebody writes a tune and you can see yourself in it. You’re like, “Oh man, I wish I wrote this one. It’s beautiful.”
[Laughs] These guys are being nice. They all have good sense of rhythms. I guess being from Africa, rhythm is the one element of music I never really worked on seriously. I grew up in Africa and played percussion as a kid. But actually that was pretty much my homework, you know? I didn’t realize that it would serve me to this day. I’ve been to different music schools, but my teachers always talked about my sense of rhythm. For me it is so natural that it’s not something I work on. I’m working on other things I don’t have at that level. I’m working on harmony or melody. But yeah, it’s just my natural way of playing.
What is it about the culture in Africa that instills such rhythm? You could grow up in America playing drums from a young age and have a very different experience.
It took me a while to make the connection between the traditional rhythms in Africa and jazz, but actually there is a big connection. It’s all coming from the same source. So once I found that connection, I could realize that all of these rhythms come from Africa, no doubts. The big difference is the harmony and how you use it. But the essence of jazz music, that’s rhythm and it comes from Africa.
Africans approach the rhythm differently because it’s part of the language. There is already a rhythm to our dialects. There is even a language in South Africa that has the click sound. If you listen to that language, you may dance, you know? It’s all part of our dialects, you know, the way we phrase the rhythms. For me it all comes from Africa.
You sing with clicks and other sounds in your music frequently. Did you actively study the South African languages and dialects?
No, I don’t really speak that language. I use the click sound my own way to play music. I grew up listening to lots of different types of music from Africa and some of it came from South Africa. I listened a lot to Miriam Makeba who speaks Xhosa which is the click language. I’m a big fan of different rhythms in Africa, so I did do my homework checking out the different ones from Mali, from Senegal, from Congo. They all have different approaches rhythmically or even the guitar playing and harmony. I use all of those influences today.
You moved to the Ivory Coast to study music in your youth. At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue music intellectually and as a career?
To be honest, it was clear from the first year I played guitar. I started playing when I was 17; I started late. It took me a while because I was expected to be a doctor or a lawyer or something intellectual. So it took me a while to say, “You know what, this is what I want to do.” Knowing that I started late, I told myself, “Well, if this is what I want to do, then I have to give all my energy to make it happen.” I don’t want to be a musician and serve pizza on the side. If it came to it I would do it. But I wanted to focus completely on music though and that’s what I did. It was clear from the first year I played guitar. This is what I want to do. I just have to work hard because I started late.
Music led you to move to France and then on to America. If you were not a musician, do you think you would have ever left the country?
Maybe not. If I wasn’t doing music, I would be doing what my parents wanted. Today I would be a teacher or a lawyer or something. Maybe I would leave the country, but I don’t see a reason why. Music, of course, led me to travel to work and discover something different.
What was your time in France like?
It was like coming out of the tunnel. It was like coming out of the dark tunnel. Until I went to Paris I was learning everything by myself musically speaking. I was studying classical music in Africa, so Paris was the first jazz school I had ever been to. It was incredible. Just to start with, I could buy guitar strings. I could buy some books. I had teachers who could answer the questions I had for years. It was enlightening.
So I was learning from my teachers, from books, from CDs. I listened to music I had never heard and people I had never heard of before. I was discovering so much that I had to lock myself in my room and just digest it.
Now, you started the guitar because that was all you could get at the time, correct?
My older brother was playing guitar, so guitar was the first instrument I had. I had to play guitar, but I guess it could have been piano if it was a piano or bass or whatever. I would prefer, I mean I love guitar, but I think I could be a piano player or a drummer. I could be a good drummer [laughs]. I have played percussion pretty much my entire life, so I wanted to play something different. For me drums weren’t fun at the time. It wasn’t that fun compared to guitar, which is a modern instrument. That was my mistake. Now I’ll play drums on the guitar or something [laughs].
You’ve been working on bringing piano-like concepts to the guitar in terms of working in the melody and harmony together. Is that something you are still pursuing?
Oh yeah, that’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m trying to do every day. I’m not a conventional guitar player. My approach to the instrument is different and I’m still developing. I have a different tuning of the instrument, first of all. I don’t tune my guitar like everybody else. So that’s helped me to do other things like finding some interesting voicings close to the sound of the piano. Having my master, my all-time idol, Mr. Herbie Hancock, working with me for the past nine years has been amazing. I learn so much from him. So my approach to the instrument is that I want to use all of those elements across the instrument. I also switched from playing with a pick before to playing with my fingers the past few years. That gives me more polyphonic approaches to the music. The rhythm too is more polyrhythmic because I’m not using the pick, I’m using four fingers. I think my goal is to play the guitar but have a different approach rhythmically and harmonically to the instrument. I’m still searching.
How much time do you get to practice? Are you too busy or do you make time to work on these things?
To tell you the truth, practice is what I miss the most. At some point I will take like six months to just practice, not really gig or anything. I’m developing my own sound, so what I want to work on is very clear in my mind. I just don’t find the time to do it. It’s not like I can’t figure out what to do. I know exactly what to do. When I’m playing I can hear in my mind something, but maybe my fingers cannot do it. I need to practice to coordinate my mind to be able to get that sound out. So I have to start practicing. I miss that.
What would it take for you to have that break; is it a plausible scenario while you are on a record label?
It’s hard in many ways. The first thing is that obviously I have a record coming, so I have to tour. I have to keep touring. I can’t just put a record out and stay home. And even before I had the record, I’m a musician. I’m not like a world superstar and have endless income. By not playing I have no income, so I have to get out. I have to live and pay my rent. This is what I do. I’m thinking maybe six months is too long. Maybe I start with one week and see where that gets me. I’ll practice morning, afternoon, and night. I think I’m going to do that. If I can do one week or two weeks, maybe three months that’d be really good.
Speaking of practicing, you use so many unconventional sounds within your music. Are these sounds you hear in your head or are they from outside influences?
Yeah they are in my head. Just like I was saying I would start playing percussion on my instrument, it’s because I’m hearing it in my head. I’m hearing it because of the percussion I had as a kid. I always wanted to bring it into my music. It’s not like I’m hearing something specific though; I’m just hearing sound. Basically whatever I hear, I let out. It may not be the best thing at the moment, but to tell you the truth, one of my first rules is not to be afraid, to try. That’s how I discover so many different aspects of my technique. My click sound came from a gig where I started one of my tunes with clicks and afterwards everybody was like, “Wow, what was that?” I don’t know, I just hear it. I’m not afraid to try. I used to be very mad at myself when it wasn’t working the way I wanted. I’m not anymore though because that’s how you learn. I want to learn and you can’t learn by doing what has been done. You can’t create really. Charlie Parker didn’t do it. John Coltrane was influenced by Charlie Parker, but he has his sound. Miles was influenced by Dizzy. You have to know who you are, where you came from and what you have. But most importantly you have to know what you don’t have.
What’s on the horizon for you in terms of new projects?
I’ll be touring all fall and then we will see. I have another project in mind, but right now I’m focused on Heritage.
Interview & Photos by Eric Sandler