Lionel Loueke: Creating His Own Lines
Gratchen Parlato, who the guitarists knows from both Berklee and the Thelonious Monk Institute, provides vocals for two of the cuts, "Tribal Dance" and Hope." We went to school together (Berklee). "She definitely has the same vision and she's definitely one of my favorite singers simply because she's not afraid to go over the boundaries," Loueke says. "She has great ears and great timing. She came ready. Her approach to a composition is very unique... With Gretchen I always feel free to go anywhere. I know she will be following, and vice versa."
Other tunes on this impressive recording of varied rhythmic and melodic textures feature Loueke vocalizing with his guitar, in sectionsput to great use in "Bayyinah"something that has almost become a trademark.
"I started when I was a kid with percussion and singing," he says. In Benin, it was common to have groups of kids playing different types of percussion, singing and dancing and he was a part of that. "I don't consider myself a singer, even up to now. I just like to use it as another device on top of my guitar. That's the way I hear it. So, I realize everything I was playing I was signing at some point. In the beginning, the voice was for the guitar. Now it's pretty much the opposite. It's mostly the guitar for the voice because it helps my phrasing better. I don't overplay because I have to breathe and also I don't play the same thing over and over, because when I start improvising, if I listen more to my voice, I know there are some things that are going to come out naturally, that I won't do on the guitar without the voice. The voice helps the guitar, the guitar helps the voice."
The recording also continues to show Loueke's affinity with rhythms. "In my country, each tribe has its own rhythm. If you think about it, there are so many tribes in Africa in each country. Sometimes 15 or 20 different rhythms. When you are a musician, everybody knows the music from the north or the south or east and west. As a kid I was already into traditional music because we had a group and were playing from door to door to get some coins. Sometimes I was the dancer. We had to play in different places in the country, so that was a great period of learning. At the same time, I was listening to the music of South Africa, music from the Congo. When I started playing guitar, it mostly Congolese music. Music from Nigeria. All those rhythms were strong and intense."
He adds, "when I started really focusing on the guitar I never really focused on my rhythm. I focused more on the melody and the harmony. The rhythm, for me, the foundation, was strong enough. I didn't feel the need. Of course I worked on meters and stuff like that we have in Africa. 17/4, 15/4. I was working more on harmony and melody."
Loueke's older brother was already playing guitar when he decided to make the switch. "Once I started playing I was already trying to do things I was doing on percussion. But without thinking." It developed patterns and an approach that was different, and it was something noticed by his teachers as he advanced in his studies, but also by other musicians. Loueke had something of his own early on. "Especially when I got to Berklee, my teachers and my peers and friends were telling me about my... the way I touch my strings, my phrasing," he says. "I started cautioning myself and thought maybe I should go back and find out what they were talking about. Because when I got to Boston I wanted to play jazz like John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Wes Montgomery. I wanted to understand the tradition of jazz without thinking of developing my own sound. Then I realized the percussion helps me a lot even today, because I'm like a guitarist/bassist/percussionist/vocalist. All those elements come up in my playing."
Heritage, he says, is a recording he is pleased with as a progression in his music. "It's very different than what I've been doing up to now. I like to surprise myself. I like to try different things. Otherwise I get quickly bored."