Born in the West African nation of Benin, Lionel Loueke was spellbound by the movements of African rhythms, the fluid strokes of the guitar, and the passion evoked through singing. He learned all three, singing in the African languages of Fon, from Benin and Mina from the adjacent nation of Togo. He was trained at the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast in 1990; and in 1994, he was accepted at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, France. He proceeded to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts after being awarded a scholarship in 1999. From there, he was selected by an astute panel of judges that included Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter to be the recipient of a full scholarship to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles from 2001-2003. In 2002, he recorded tracks for two of Blanchard’s albums and is featured on Blanchard’s CD and DVD Flow. Loueke also recorded tracks on Herbie Hancock’s CD and DVD Possibilities. For his own discography, Loueke has recently released, Virgin Forest, his debut on ObliqSound Records.
From the start of Virgin Forest, the listener is surrounded by representations of both African folk art tones and world-class jazz textures. "Rossignol" could be one of the most eloquently sung and elegantly spun tunes that you may ever hear. It glows with a soft Brazilian atmosphere permeating from the guitar arpeggios and Loueke’s loosely swinging vocals. It does not matter at all that he sings in African languages, you fall in love with the song after the first listen. The clicking rhythmic beats of "Prelude To Vivi" act as a portico for the proceeding sequence of tranquilly rolling chants and airy guitar chords of "Vivi," which translated means "happiness." It feels like you are entering the inner sanctum of Africa’s folk music in these tracks with the soft rhythmic sways and upbeat vocal rubs of "Kponnon Kpete," showing a strong resemblance to Caribbean music. "Postlude to Kponnon Kpete" is a soothing tonic of willowy guitar strokes and soft pitched vocals, while "Prelude to Abominwe" has upbeat vocal chants segueing into the lounging African jazz tempo of "Abominwe" with the chord notations releasing atoms of sweetness in the air.
The languid piano strolls of "Le Reveil des Agneaux" have a pensive lure, while the shuffling rhythms of "Danse des Animaux" prompt jubilant leg work. The tribal rhythms of "Prelude to Madjigua" are an introduction to the soft curls and hushed vocals of "Madjigua," which translated means "wishing for money." The rhythmic grooves are hypnotic and stimulate the body to move. The interlude "Dispute des Loups" provides moments of tension and relaxation through the guitar chord series, which proceeds into the smooth whips of "Benny’s Tune." The song "Moesha I" is a softly strummed lullaby, while the piano doodles of "La Poursuite du Lion" show finesse in the jumping agility of the keys moving from joyful to crazed. The tribal rhythms of "Prelude to Virgin Forest" showcase cool whistles strewn beneath the vocal chants, which lead into the title track, a tapestry of African and jazz hues.
Loueke does a fine job of encapsulating the tribal/folk music of Africa and bringing in complementing hues of jazz. Singing in African languages actually enriches the brightness of the hues and allows the listener to experience the music in its own native dialect. Though Loueke expresses in several press clippings that he fears African rhythms will be lost unless they are put into practice by more artists, it has been jazz and world music that has assimilated these vibrations into their own. The fact that Loueke has performed and recorded for a number of international artists including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter, Terrence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Sting, Santana, Terri Lyne Carrington, Roy Hargrove, and many others, is proof that African rhythms are part of pop culture and continues to greatly influence the music of burgeoning artists.