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(Soundbite of song by Lionel Loueke)

TONY COX, host:

Develop an original voice, and eventually you'll be heard and validated. It's what many aspiring artists say to themselves when honing their craft. For African guitarist Lionel Loueke, the day to be validated came in 2001, when he auditioned for The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. His judges, jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. That's enough to make any musician trip over his own confidence. But Loueke seized the moment. Flash forward to the present, and he's one of the most in-demand jazz guitarists in the world. In fact, one command performance came from our very own Farai Chideya, who's always looking for a way to be serenaded.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So the story that folks tell about you goes like this. You were one of many musicians from around the world auditioning for The Thelonious Monk Institute. And so the panel of judges included superstars Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard, some of the biggest names in jazz. And when they saw you play, they all looked at each other and said, we've found an original. What's your story from that day?

Mr. LIONEL LOUEKE (Jazz Guitarist): Well, I was never for sure that they - and I knew that before I get in the room, I just - I thought to myself, I just want to be myself. You know, I don't want to sound like anybody else. Just play true from my heart and see if they like it or not. And at the end of the audition, you know, they were clapping, they were happy and I was happy, too.

CHIDEYA: What did you play?

Mr. LOUEKE: They asked me to play "Footprints" by Wayne Shorter.

CHIDEYA: Do you think you could play just a tiny, like a minute of "Footprints" for us now?

Mr. LOUEKE: Oh, I can try.

CHIDEYA: OK.

Mr. LOUEKE: OK.

(Soundbite of song "Footprints" by Lionel Loueke)

Mr. LOUEKE: I hope you like that.

CHIDEYA: Oh, that is great. Now, what about the clicking and the vocalizations you do that you do? How did you start it, and do you have a name for it?

Mr. LOUEKE: No, I have no name for it. Actually, I started doing this not too long ago, maybe three or four years ago. It came - it just came to me. I was playing in a gig and I was playing an intro and I start - I don't know how or where it came from. So you know, it is part of me, and it's getting better. I'm getting better, you know. Only the instrument is not enough at this point for me. I need them out as well.

CHIDEYA: So you're from Benin originally.

Mr. LOUEKE: Yes. ..TEXT: CHIDEYA: A New Yorker at this point in your life.

Mr. LOUEKE: Yeah. ..TEXT: CHIDEYA: What do those flavors bring to who you are as a musician and what you play?

Mr. LOUEKE: You know, a lot of stuff, a lot of music I grew up with, I learned, stayed with me. I remember some of them and eventually, when I write music, I think I write music with having those elements, you know, somewhere in my head so they never - they're always there somehow. I can't really separate, you know, the life I had before and the life I'm having now. They are, you know, this one unit.

CHIDEYA: Do you come from a family that played music?

Mr. LOUEKE: My grandfather was a singer, a traditional singer of the village.

CHIDEYA: So when you decided to leave the country and pursue a much more structured musical career, did anyone say, hey, Lionel, that's kind of crazy. What are you doing?

Mr. LOUEKE: Oh, yes. Starting from my father, you know. It's part of every day's life. You know, you have music everywhere. You hear musicians pretty much everywhere in Africa, so why make a career out of that, you know? And my thing was, you know, I wanted to study music, not just play like I used to play, you know, on the street. I wanted to study, go to a music school, you know, get better. Especially jazz was my thing. I wanted to study jazz, so...

CHIDEYA: So you ended up studying in Ghana, in Paris, at the Berklee School of Music in Massachusetts, all an amazing journey any of itself. But I wonder if you can take us back, once again, to a time when you were first either learning to play, or first performing. And play something for us that takes you back in time and tell us when - you know, what part of your life it's from.

Mr. LOUEKE: Well, I'm going to play a song by Francis Bebey. He's a great composer and singer from Cameroon. I don't speak their language, so I remember transcribing by ears whatever he was singing. So let me play this for you.

(Soundbite of song by Lionel Loueke)

Mr. LOUEKE: Something like that.

CHIDEYA: That was great.

Mr. LOUEKE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Go ahead with your bad self.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So let me ask you about your own band..

Mr. LOUEKE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Gilfema. When you put this group together, you have people who come from different parts of the world. How do you feel that multiculturalism plays into the team that you've put together to work with, and also into music, particularly jazz? I mean, what is it about cross-cultural influences that reshape music? Do you even think about in that sense?

Mr. LOUEKE: Yeah. Well, the group is called Gilfema. It's based on the trio of Ferenc Nemeth, he's the drummer from Hungary, and Massimo Biolcati, he's half Italian, half Swedish, he's the bass player. The way I see jazz anyway, you know, even if people say jazz is, you know, from Africa or from America, it means to me that it's a mix of culture. In Benin, we have our own culture, but our culture - jazz didn't appear for no reason. It came from somewhere, so - and that place is everywhere. So I believe we're now in a mix of culture and I think it goes for every - anything, particularly anything.

CHIDEYA: Well, I love the picture of the three of you, your core group, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Mr. LOUEKE: Thank you. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Great place to be.

Mr. LOUEKE: That's right.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm wondering if you can play something from your new album, "Gilfema +2."

Mr. LOUEKE: OK. I want to play - actually, the first track on the CD is called "Twins," and I'm going to try to play it by myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOUEKE: All right.

(Soundbite of song "Twins" by Gilfema)

COX: That's was NPR's Farai Chideya talking with jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke. You can hear Lionel with his group, Gilfema, on their latest CD, "Gilfema +2."

(Soundbite of song "Twins" by Gilfema)

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