In Lionel Loueke, African Pop Meets Jazz He's one of New York's top jazz guitarists, but Lionel Loueke grew up in the West African nation of Benin. Since he left, he has forged a unique sound which draws from the traditional music of his youth.
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In Lionel Loueke, African Pop Meets Jazz

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In Lionel Loueke, African Pop Meets Jazz

In Lionel Loueke, African Pop Meets Jazz

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Back now with Day to Day. Here's a Cinderella story for you. Jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke grew up in Benin. It's a small poor country in west Africa, and he says he comes from a family of poor intellectuals. Now, he's a successful musician, and he lives in New York City. He recently brought his guitar to NPR Studios there to talk with music journalist Christian Bourdal about his new CD Karibu.

(Soundbite of music Lionel Loueke)

Mr. LIONEL LOUEKE (Musician): Yeah, I grew up listening to traditional music from Benin.

CHRISTIAN BOURDAL: That's jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Mr. LOUEKE: My older brother was playing guitar, so I started playing guitar when I was 17, playing pretty much African music, what we call African pop.

BOURDAL: But when a friend of his brother's brought a George Benson album with him from Paris, Loueke's musical interests and life started moving in a new direction.

Mr. LOUEKE: I didn't know what he was doing, I didn't even know it was improvisation. All I knew was that it was something I would love to do.

BOURDAL: At age 16, Loueke went to study classical music history in Ivory Coast. He had so little money, he says, he got kicked out of his room for not paying the rent. Desperate for some kind of paying work, he went to a club, grabbed the band's guitar while they were on break, and started to play. Before the band could grab it back, the manager offered him a gig, which he held for two years.

From Ivory Coast, Loueke went to study jazz in Paris. Then got a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. And after completing two years in Boston, he auditioned for a spot at the Monk Institute in L.A.

Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Jazz Musician): I flipped. I'd never heard any guitar player play anything close to what I was hearing from him.

BOURDAL: The judges at the audition were none other than jazz greats Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, and Herbie Hancock, who here is speaking on a video about Loueke.

Mr. HANCOCK: The scope of the choices he made for expressing himself, it was as though there was no territory that was forbidden. He was fearless.

(Soundbite of music Lionel Loueke)

BOURDAL: Loueke has a unique sound that fuses the traditional African music he grew up with to the intellectualism of modern jazz harmonies and complex time signatures. A good example is one of his own compositions that he played solo at NPR studios. It's called "Majiga," which Louieke says translates roughly to a guy seeking money. Before he started playing the tune, he asked for some paper, which he threaded through his guitar strings near the bridge to get a kind of traditional buzzy west African sound.

(Soundbite of music Lionel Loueke's "Majiga")

BOURDAL: The song sounds very traditional. But if you were having trouble following the groove, that's because it's in the exotic jazz time signature of 11 beats to a bar. For those of you who don't know what that means, I asked Loueke to count it out.

Mr. LOUEKE: So basically, when I say four, one two three four, one two three four, one two three four, that's how I play.

(Soundbite of guitar strumming)

Mr. LOUEKE: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. But the way I played before was, I say 11 so same thing counts from one to 11. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11.

BOURDAL: If you want to make a ton of money and not work too hard, don't go into jazz. When he's not working or traveling, Loueke practices a lot. He says that he and the rest of his trio, bassist Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth, can also work together many hours a day.

But all that work is paying off. Loueke's great musical breadth and technical ability has started resulting in a very busy guesting schedule. Along with his own trio, he also plays in Herbie Hancock's band. And he's played with a who's-who of big jazz names, not to mention the fantastic African pop star Angelique Kidjo, a fellow Beninese New Yorker.

Mr. LOUEKE: You know, every time I do a gig with different musicians, of course, I always learn something. I just want to be a musician, I don't want to be a specific musician that can play only one style of music.

(Soundbite of music)

BOURDAL: On his new CD, Karibu, his first for jazz label Blue Note, Loueke's compositions grow from his African roots but quickly stretch and spread into complex guitar voicings, harmonies, and meters. The result, however, doesn't come off like a dry musical exercise. The songs feel like a fresh, organic amalgam of a well-traveled musical life, performed by someone who's put in the time to become a master of his instrument.

For NPR News, I'm Christian Bourdal.

BRAND: To hear the full songs that Lionel Loueke performed in studio, visit our music website The CD is called Karibu, music journalist Christian Bourdal also has a CD out. It's called Seven Songs, with his band Emma Lazarus.

Day to day is a production of NPR News with contributions from I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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