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INTERVIEW Unique tribute to a jazz great

LIONEL LOUEKE talks to Chris Searle about HH, his album paying tribute to the legendary pianist Herbie Hancock

BORN in Cotonou, Benin, in 1973, the brilliantly unique guitarist Lionel Loueke played percussion in his childhood before saving up for a year in his teens to buy his first guitar. Its strings had to be imported from Nigeria and he would replace broken ones by discarded bicycle brake cables.

“The language I use as I’m playing is mostly from Benin,” he tells me, “and playing percussion in my early years greatly influenced the way I play guitar today.

“My struggle to find knowledge in my earliest stages of learning helped me to find my own way of expressing myself musically. I was always committed to that — necessity is the mother of invention.”

In 1990 he studied music in the Ivory Coast, moved to Paris to attend the American School of Music and gained a scholarship in the prestigious jazz college of Berklee in the US.

“I was excited to study there and to learn so much from my peers and many great teachers,” he says. “I just had a different way of playing though. It’s like when I speak English with a different accent.”

His powerfully original percussive guitar style, accompanied by African vocalese and fused with the influences of Wes Montgomery, BB King and Jimi Hendrix, meant that he successfully auditioned for the Thelonious Monk Institute at the University of Southern California.

The judges were pianist Hancock and trumpeter Terence Blanchard and he was not only invited to join Blanchard’s band in 2002 and Hancock’s in 2006, he also recorded with them both and made his first Blue Note album, Karibu, in 2008.

For Loueke, the veteran Hancock is his “mentor and master” and his latest album, simply titled HH, is a tribute to him. It’s a compendium of the latter’s classic themes such as Watermelon Man, Dolphin’s Dance and Cantaloupe Island, plus his own Homage to HH.

“Master Herbie helped me a lot by offering the opportunity to play in his band. I learned so much from him, both on stage and in daily life experience. He’s the best teacher I ever had,” he says.”You are the truth!” he affirms in his sleeve notes.

It’s a solo record but Loueke’s sound is quasi-orchestral, as if Africa and America were finding a trans-Atlantic musical energy and unity within his notes.

Defiance surges from themes like Hang Up Your Hang-ups and Rockit, invisible drums click through Driftin’ and there is a lullaby-like tenderness in Tell Me a Bedtime Story and a balladic beauty to Voyage Maiden.

When I ask him how he sees music arising from the resistance to racism throughout the US last year, he is clear that “we are already seeing new music relating to what has been happening and there will be much more to come once the pandemic is under control.

“Through generations jazz has always been an expression of a revolution against social injustice in society.”

Loueke was supposed to perform in Britain this year but everything was cancelled due to Covid. He hopes to be back in 2022 and, if he makes it, don’t miss.

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