Monday, 5 July 2021

Lionel Loueke answers my question: where is the One?

"Nobody believes me the first time I tell them where the One is." 

I was sat across the table from Lionel Loueke.

Earlier that month, I had been speaking on the phone with Dave Stapleton of Edition Records, sharing with him some early ideas for the Groovalo record club, around the time he was preparing for the release of Lionel Loueke's HH record. It came up that both Loueke and myself were living in Luxembourg. So we arranged to meet.

And obviously my first question: where is the one? He immediately knew what I meant.

"Nobody believes me the first time I tell them where the One is. Not even Terence [Blanchard, who was director of the Monk Insitute where Loueke once studied]."

One day - I'm guessing around 2007 or 2008 - Dave Hamblett played me the track: Novignon, the version from Gretchen Parlato's first album. I remember him clapping the clave and counting. I didn't believe him. 

He was right, though. There were other versions of the tune which made it more obvious, which helped. Still, I'm still thrown by it every time.

In true fanboy fashion I showed Loueke a drum machine on my phone where I had a patch saved of the Novignon beat, complete with a loud, graceless click landing on the One each time. Just where Dave Hamblett had said it was 12 years earlier.

So where is the One?

1...2...3...4...not there. There.

"You don't really need to think about it like that, though." and then he did a motion with his hand in a circle. "It's more like that."

Anyway, here is the rest of the interview I did, as it appeared in the first issue of the Groovalo record club zine...

Tell me a bit about who you are, and where you’re from.

So I’m Lionel Loueke, I’m a musician - a Guitarist shall we say? That’s my main instrument, and I’m from Benin, West Africa. I grew up in Benin, and moved to Paris, and then got a scholarship to Berklee, then to the Monk Institute. Then I moved to New York - I lived in New York for 15 years, and now in Luxembourg.

Where would you say is your spiritual home?

My spiritual home is where I was born; it's Benin. I try to go home once a year just to reconnect with my folks. And that's a place I feel like I'm recharging my batteries to the food, to the music, to the culture. Reconnecting is to see my closest friends, to play with local musicians, to go to villages to learn from traditional musicians, to hang with my folks, you know, get some home cooked food, hopefully.

How did this record ​HH​ come about?

(Note: HH stands for Herbie Hancock, Loueke’s long time mentor)

Well I’ve been with Herbie for more than 15 years, so the idea for me was to find a way to present his music, and through his music, present my vision and all the stuff I learnt from him.

For me personally, it’s not just about the music, it’s about the person, how much influence he had on so many of us from generation to generation, and also, you know, try to find the best tune for me, not the easiest but aha, the one that can challenge me as I’m not a piano player, and this is a solo project which make it even harder. Herbie’s music - harmonically - is already intense. I had to find a way to make it my own. It’s not going to be better, that’s not my idea - it’s just different to the originals.

What was the biggest surprise you had when you were making it?

The biggest surprise was in the studio, because I didn’t prepare that much. I wanted to find the raw approach to his music, even if I’ve been playing it for a while. Massimo Biolcati, who was the​ ​co-producer on the third day in the studio, he said: “Man, what about playing ​One-finger Snap?​ ” and in my head I said “oh yeah, why not!” but I had no idea what I was going to do. So that was a good surprise actually. I like how it came out, you know, because maybe I hear the head in and then I went completely into zombie territory. And I like those kinds of weird situations.

The other one was ​Dolphin Dance,​ he asked me to play Dolphin Dance, too, so those were, for me, the good surprises. You just throw yourself in a situation and have no idea how it’s going to end, and it’s by trying that you discover.

The record is a completely solo recording - did you take a different approach than when you record with a band?

Yeah, because a band, you know, has more support. (Laughs). You know, everybody, each person plays his part and beyond. But when you play solo, it’s more challenging. I like the challenge. Being solo just keeps it wide open, and I like that because you know, some of Herbie’s tunes, I have to play the bassline and melody at the same time. I’m just playing both, like ​Rockit​, playing the bassline and melody at the same time.

Is there a colour you see when you listen to the record, or when you think about the record?

Yes, that’s a good question. Well, I see peace - that’s one of the things I learnt from Herbie: peace and love. I’m a Buddhist, I practise Buddhism. I discovered practising Buddhism on tour with Herbie, we chant every day on the road before going on stage, so that’s why I was saying for me, it’s not just about the music, but it’s also the spirit that helps the music.

Does your Buddhism impact your playing?

Oh yeah, big time, big time. Actually that’s how I get into it, because, you know, by hearing Herbie also telling me how he got into it. It was the bass player, Buster Williams. Herbie said “Man, this guy was playing some unbelievable, unbelievable stuff”, one night, and during the break, he called Buster to his room and said “man, what’s going on?” because they had the same touring schedule and everyone was tired, you know, but he was the one with the good energy, and then he told Herbie that he’d been chanting for a while, and that’s how he started, and so that’s how I started too.

You know, when we’re on the road for six weeks, it’s impossible to keep the energy that high every night, and somehow he does it. ​So for me, what I learned is that music is just what we do, it’s not who we are. ​So by working on yourself to be a better human being, that will affect whatever you do. So you could be a carpenter or you could be anything, that’s just what you do, but not who you are. So if you clean up that side of yourself, or build it up, then whatever you do will come through that.

Is there a tune of Herbie's that you wish you had written?

There are plenty. (Laughs). I mean, he has so many beautiful songs - tunes, that, I mean I wouldn’t be able to cover all of them, and um, I had to make a choice, I had to make a decision, but - yeah there’s many. You know, even the - what is it called - um - there’s one that everybody knows, we play at the end of every gig, it’s a hit, but I didn’t record it because I didn’t feel like I could bring something, on it, really different. Because my idea was to really make different every single piece, rhythmically, harmonically, like you can recognise the melody, but the whole music is just a whole different direction - so yeah it was a challenge to select the tunes.

Are there any other songs out there you wish you had written?

Oh yeah there’s a lot of songs - actually on my instagram, that’s what I’ve been doing, the last two, three years. Like when a song came - I mean, when I’m home, or I’ve had a melody in my mind, not everyone knows I just go in my basement and record it just for fun. So I have a lot of hit songs on my Instagram. The latest I’ve done was Tears in Heaven. I like beautiful songs.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

Childhood, playing percussion with my friends, but the reason behind [it] was to make some coins. Because it was just like a playground for us. So I would bring my Mum’s pans, somebody would bring something from the kitchen, we just play, we had a dancer with a mask on, and we would go from house to house just to get some coins so we could buy some candies. But actually it was the best training - musical training I ever had, I learnt so much. I mean, a lot of things - even today - come from that period; songs, rhythms - so yes.

And if you had to completely change professions tomorrow, what would you be?

I think I’d probably still be in the arts. I think I’d still do something really to... either music or painting, or - I mean something really for creation. I don’t know, maybe a chef. I love good food, I love to cook. And it’s healthy when I’m cooking, sometimes I just open the fridge, and cook what I have in front of me.

So if you were to give some advice to musicians, what sort of things would you say?

Practicing is always good. I would say, not being afraid to leave your comfort zone. Because the comfort zone is the easiest thing to do. You know it’s like, you decide to practise, you pick up your instrument, and you’re having fun. And that’s cool, but you’re not learning anything new, you’re just pleasing yourself. And that can go for hours.

So whether you see someone who says they practise for three hours a day, or someone who says they practise for 15 minutes a day, I always say focus every time you go to practise. Even if it’s just 15 minutes, in those 15 minutes you have to learn something new, otherwise you haven’t done anything. You practise to get better, to get the language, to find the words to express yourself. And when you perform, the stuff you’re practicing has to be behind you. And that’s the problem in the music schools: people get the information, and when it’s time to play, they’re thinking about the information instead of being in the moment, and focusing on the music. So when you’re performing, the music for me has to be first, and the music has to guide you, and make the decision on where you have to go. It’s not ​you​ making the decision, but the music. And that requires listening, being aware of the situation, which can go anywhere, and let it go naturally.

Can you practise that listening?

Oh yeah, you can practise listening. What I used to do is record myself, until the point where I couldn’t listen to myself. (laughs). But you can practise, when you record yourself and you listen back. Or when you play a gig - I don’t do it anymore - I record the gig and listen back to what I’ve done after the gig is finished so I can make some criticisms. Not the other way round. When I’m playing, it’s almost like I don’t know anything, which is easy to say but hard to do. Because, the more information I have - put it this way - the writer that we like will say something to connect first, and will find the simplest words that connect people. Not the hardest words, so that you have to use the dictionary to understand one phrase. So for me, is the same thing, so as a musician, by learning you get so much information, and when you start to play that information has to go back and let your heart speak. Which is hard. It’s easy to say but hard to do, because how do you choose simple words, or simple notes? When you know that, you have the technique to go crazy.

What’s an album you’d recommend from someone you’ve shared a stage with, or someone that’s in your world?

Yeah, it depends - If it’s African music, or Jazz - If it’s Jazz I would say 1 plus 1, that’s Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. 1+1. And if it’s African music? If it’s African music I would say Fela. I mean, you can’t go wrong with Fela Kuti. There are so many - any album from Fela for me. Or King Sunny Adé, or Franko [Luambo] from Congo. Or DouDou N’Diaye Rose from Senegal, he passed away now, he was an unbelievable master drummer.

Is there an album you’d recommend for someone who hasn’t fallen in love with jazz yet?

Well, I would say, Miles Davis. Kind of Blue, that would be the one I recommend first, because even though it’s the one everybody knows, I think it has everything. Whether you’re a jazz musician, a professional, or you’ve never heard jazz before, I would say that would be the first one, absolutely. What is it about that record? Magic. (laughs). It’s really magical. I think in the simplest simplicity of the music and the playing. The compositions are very simple, that anybody can sing, even the solos you can sing as well. And you have it cover crazy from fast crazy note playing from John Coltrane to more space and muted trumpet from Miles. For me, it's complete, when it comes to jazz. It’s beautiful.

Over time, they learn from each other, you know. Miles also started with the crazy bebop thing, and then slowed down, and then went crazy too. So I guess the amount of notes, if they make sense, is not so important. Like, Coltrane plays many notes, but man you slow down that thing down, you analyse it - you don’t wanna move any notes there! You don’t wanna take anything out! Same as Miles, leave the space, you don’t change any notes. It’s like a new tune on top of another tune... wow. Like [Thelonious] Monk,, Monk is the other cat for me - Monk and Wayne [Shorter] actually, are the types of musicians that always connect through the melody to the head, and they always stretch, find a way to stretch the main melody. Which is not so easy to do because, again, you have chord changes so, you know. But find a way to connect those lines with melody is not easy. And any tunes from those two, you listen back and you hear the melody come in.

And you mentioned an app you had been working on?

Guitafrica is an app based on the continent, where I wrote one song from each country. I mean, not every country, but I wrote music for half of the country and in the main style from each country. So, you know, like in Senegal, you have the Sabar music, where I play the percussion on myself. I did a lot of research to get it. Basically, the guitars are imitating traditional instruments: either string instruments, or percussion, for example. Just by building this, I learned so much about African music and the idea is to share that with other people, whoever wants to learn African music. Overleaf you'll find two pieces from this app. Zinilo is in the home style of Benin, and Jujulio inspired by Nigeria.