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The Journey Of Lionel Loueke

by Howard Lawes



Lionel Loueke

Lionel Loueke
Photograph by Jean-Baptiste, Millot


The musical career of Benin born Lionel Loueke is one of those heart-warming rags to riches stories that inspire aspiring musicians all over the world.  He was born in Benin, a west African country neighbouring Togo to the west and Nigeria to the east.  Historically this group of countries, amongst others, was called the 'Slave Coast' from the 16th to 19th centuries and during this period it is estimated that three million or more Africans were sold into the slave trade and shipped to the Caribbean and South America by Lionel Loueke The JourneyEuropean slave traders. After slave trading was abolished, the country was governed by France. From 1892 it was named 'French Dahomey' and gained independence in 1960 as the Republic of Dahomey. The early years of this fledgling republic were turbulent and during the period 1975 to 1990 the People's Republic of Benin was governed by a Marxist military council; in 1990 the country was renamed the Republic of Benin.

Guitarist Lionel Loueke was born in 1973 and life in the People's Republic for him may well have left a lot to be desired - economic activity was nationalised, professionals deserted the country and riots broke out.  But Lionel would have been able to hear the traditional music of his region, including the percussive Ewe music, Vodun and poly-rhythmic folk music. He initially sang and played percussive instruments but was able to buy a guitar at age seventeen and having demonstrated his musical aptitude left Benin to study at the recently founded National Institute of Arts in Cote D'Ivoire.  Later he transferred to Paris to study at the American School of Modern Music in 1994 and then to the USA. Interestingly some of the music the young Lionel Loueke heard as a teenager included samba rhythms that had been imported from South America by freed slaves returning to their homelands and also jazz through the recordings of George Benson.

Lionel Loueke's new album, The Journey, begins with a track called Bouriyan, (a Brazilian inspired festival), highlighting the ethnic origins of his family who were part of an Afro-Brazilian community living in the coastal town of Ouidah. Following his studies in Paris, Loueke was successful in gaining a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA and then the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles until 2003. 

The second track on the album is called Molika which is a word formed from the names of Loueke's three children who are no doubt growing up in a very different environment to that of their father.


Here is a video of Molika.





Although the album is called The Journey it is not about travelling overland or through life, but rather it describes observations, asks questions and makes social comment in a series of vignettes. The album notes refer to "a musical journey where the point of departure is known but the destination is an enchanted mystery".  Vi Gnin (My Child) is a tribute to migrants fleeing their war torn countries searching for a new life, some of whom perish during the sea voyage,  Mande is a tribute to the Mande peoples, famed for their music and oral tradition, and Kaba (Sky) is a song marvelling at the sky, the sun and the stars. Some tunes are simply called Hope or Life while others ask questions such as Bawo (How) with words "How, How have we come to this? Modern day slavery and climate disruption push Humanity to the roads of exile." 


A video of a live performance of Vi Gnin.




Clearly Lionel Loueke has strong feelings about disadvantaged groups of people in the world and he uses his unique style of song and musicianship to draw our attention to their plight.  There is a fine tradition of protest and social comment from African jazz musicians and Lionel Loueke is following in the footsteps of the likes of Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba, Fela and Femi Kuti, many of whom moved to the USA to escape persecution or worse. Since Loueke himself moved to the USA, he has become a successful musician in his own right and also through collaborations with many of the outstanding jazz musicians of the day including Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter. Loueke has performed with other African musicians such as Angelique Kidjo who also hails from Benin and Miriam Makeba who was born to Swazi and Xhosa parents in South Africa.  Loueke's style is hugely influenced by African traditional music, particularly the region where he grew up but also other parts, including South Africa from where the vocal clicking technique of the Xhosa people originates.  The music on the album is overwhelmingly calm, more than one track sounds like a lullaby, having a sublime quality, and while the songs are sung in African languages there is a definite sense of protest even if you don't understand the language.


A video of a live performance of Dark Lightning.



The Journey is Lionel Loueke's seventh album as leader and while most of his recordings have been on the prestigious Blue Note label this is released by the French label, Aparte.  Loueke plays guitars, percussion and sings; each track is imbued with its own character, songs are in different languages and the accompanying musicians change each time. The other artists performing on the album are bassists Pino Palladino and Massimo Biolcati; clarinettist Patrick Messina; cellist Vincent Segal; violinist Mark Feldman; keyboards player Robert Sadin; saxophonist John Ellis; peul flautist Dramane Dembele; trumpeter Etienne Charles, and percussionists Cyro Baptista, Christi Joza Orisha and Ferenc Nemeth. The list includes not just jazz musicians, but classical players and performers of traditional African and Brazilian music.

The last track on the album is called The Healing which Loueke sings solo and without his guitar, the words mean "Let us seek within ourselves the peaceful solution that will free us from suffering"; he leaves this sentiment hanging in the air.


Lionel Loueke introduces the album.




Click here for details of the album. Click here for Lionel Loueke's website.


Lionel Loueke

Lionel Loueke
Photograph by Jean-Baptiste, Millot


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