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Interview with Lionel Loueke

October 17 2012

Guitarist Lionel Loueke's latest album, Heritage, his third for Blue Note, explores the intersection of cultures that have shaped his musical path, from his upbringing in Benin, to his time in Paris at the American School of Modern Music, to touring with Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard, and beyond. Co-produced by keyboardist Robert Glasper (who also plays on six of its 10 tracks) and featuring a new rhythm section of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Guiliana, the album has a more electric sound than Loueke's past outings, but his highly spiritual style still reflects a vision of multicultural unity. In this conversation, he muses on the global journey that led him to Heritage, his musical soul mate, and how he deals with the yin and yang of life. 

How has your relationship to your heritage changed over the years?
It's changing every day. Every day, I'm learning from different cultures. I'm learning more and more from being here, learning more about the culture in Europe, and all I do is influencing me and therefore influencing my playing.

Robert Glasper was a producer, co-writer, and also a performer on the album. How was it to work with him?
Robert was brilliant. It was a co-production, and we produced everything together. I knew that it would be great because we have the same vision when it comes to music—it's very open and we have a great respect for what we do and for each other. We've known each other for years. So he really brought something unique to my music and made some great suggestions, and I think that's exactly what I needed for this kind of project. Usually I play nylon strings, this time I'm playing electric guitar and steel strings; usually I play with an acoustic bass player, but this time it's electric. Robert definitely knows about that kind of sound.

Why did you switch to steel strings and how does it change your sound?
All my projects are always nylon, but when I'm on the road, for example with Herbie Hancock, I play electric guitar, so people don't know that side of me, but it's not like I'm trying to prove anything to anybody. I love the acoustic sound and I love the electric sound, but I've never had the chance to record with electric guitar on my own project, and it's about time. I don't think it changes my playing radically, but I think the sound definitely inspired me to play in a different, more sustained way.

What was it like to work with Derrick Hodge and Mark Guiliana?
They're definitely some of the greatest leaders of our generation. They're bandleaders, they're composers, and I knew that putting them together would bring something very special to the table. I thought they'd already played together before, but they hadn't. So it was a perfect situation, and it worked even better than what I was imagining, simply because they're not afraid to go beyond the boundaries. I think for all of us, no one is holding back the other person. Everybody is pushing. If you hear something, you go for it and you know that the group will support you and go in that direction.

Gretchen Parlato sings on two tracks—what does she bring to the album?
Gretchen just lit up the album even more. She has a beautiful tone. We went to school together, and when we sing together, from day one, we both knew that our voices matched each other so well. She brought something magical, I think. I think she's definitely my musical soul mate when it comes to people that have the perfect connection with you. You don't even have to say a word, and you know that musically, she's going to follow.

You co-wrote three pieces with Glasper—"Bayyinah," "Tribal Dance," and "Hope." How did those come together?
Very easily. For example, on "Hope," at the end of the tune, Robert starts to vamp. Now it's part of the tune, and that's the great thing about collaborating. You open the door and let the other person bring something special to your music. When we start a tune, we don't know how we're going to finish. As long as the ideas are very musical, no one is saying, "I don't want to try this." We always say, "Let's try it."

On "Ouidah" and "African Ship," you’re dealing with the slave trade, conceptually, but the tracks feel mellow. How did your thoughts end up leading there?
I'm not seeing only the dark side of slavery, I'm seeing also what I can learn from it, and how that influences me today, musically speaking, and in my life in general. The idea with "African Ship" is about the slaves going back to their home country. It could be from the United States, from Brazil, Cuba, or Haiti, but they're going back to their original country. You can hear the reverb on the piano, and it fits so well with the song because it's almost like the piano was in another room. They're going back home with the influence of different cultures. My mom's last name is Monteiro, which is Portuguese. Her ancestors came back after slavery, and Ouidah, which is the village where my mom is from in Benin, most of them have Portuguese names. I grew up hearing samba, sung in Portuguese, and when I was a kid, I discovered that the music really comes from Brazil.

On "Chardon," which means thistle in French, you're playing with the idea of a flower with thorns. Your compositions are full of contradictions. How do you reconcile these contradictions in your compositional process, and how do they inspire you?
There are a lot of contradictions around us in life and in society. There's a lot of things that are very opposite and in the same country or in the same place, politically or otherwise. The thing for me is to find the bridge and put those two pieces together. It's almost like when you talk to somebody with a completely different idea, it's not because you have different ideas that you're not going to have a discussion. If I respect your idea, and you let me explain mine, maybe I will understand your idea better, and maybe I will understand my own idea even better, and that's what I'm doing in music. I always try to find the common thread in the most organic way. I have to stay natural, otherwise, as I was saying before, the discussion is there, but nobody is listening.

Your music is filled with optimism. What’s the root of that?
I've learned to stay positive in any situation, and I think one person that's helped me with that is Herbie Hancock. I learned a lot with him, of course musically, but it's beyond music. I learned life with him, and one of the things that I learned was to stay positive as much as I can and turn whatever is negative to the positive. That way you always find a solution, instead of staying completely dark and not even trying. It's almost like having to detach myself from a situation and look at it from far away. That's the way I try to live every day and keep my energy positive. What I'm trying to do, at the end of the day, is to play life, instead of playing music, because music is just a part of life. I don't want music to be who I am, I want to live and express music. It all comes from the same place. Improvisation is part of a meaningful life. Everybody improvises, and to learn to lead a better life helps me to improvise better, too.