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Lionel Loueke at the Hopkins Club

October 22, 2013

1011-lionellouekeMost attempts at forging fusions between jazz and third-world music founder because one party (sometimes both) doesn’t understand the other—or, even worse, think they do and impose their misunderstanding on the collaboration. The concert by the Lionel Loueke Trio at the Hopkins Club Saturday night was a welcome exception, because Loueke is a one-man fusion.

Born and raised in the West African nation of Benin, Loueke began playing guitar by using bicycle brake cables for strings. He refined his playing in Abidjan, Paris, and Boston, eventually winning a scholarship to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he studied with Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard and eventually played in both men’s bands.

In Baltimore the tall, bald-domed guitarist performed his own compositions from his latest Blue Note album, Heritage. He began the tune “Ife” with a syncopated West African guitar figure played with a claw-like thumb-and-fingers arpeggios. But then he gave those rhythms an American cast by using his foot pedals to distort the guitar tone into growls, barks and purrs. Then he started slapping and thumping his strings like Sly Stone’s old bassist Larry Graham. This led into a crooning vocal that mixed Yoruban lyrics with South African mouth clicks and then to a rocking electric guitar solo.

Loueke was joined by his regular electric bassist Michael Olatuja and his first-time-ever drummer Justin Brown. The three men stood in the intersection of the intimate T-shaped room; they were flanked on three sides by audience members just a few feet away. Whether it was the slow hymn “Hope” or the rambunctious “Farafina,” the trio made African-American music in the truest sense of the phrase.