Two-Way Traffic: Just as Western Acts Are Inspired by "World Music", African Artists Are Tapping into Rock, Funk and Jazz, Writes Kevin LeGendre

Article excerpt

Herbie Hancock's gig at last year's London Jazz Festival was a patchy affair. The sound was poor, the drummer heavy-handed, and the decision to cover "I Just Called to Say I Love You", arguably Stevie Wonder's most sinful creation, questionable. The evening was saved, however, by one of Hancock's sidemen, the Beninese guitarist-singer Lionel Loueke.

It is a measure of the high regard in which Loueke is held that Hancock, one of the few jazzmen today with the star status of his own former bandleader Miles Davis, granted the guitarist a 15-minute solo slot. And he mesmerised the audience with a deft virtuosity that avoided tried and tested bebop "licks".

New York-based Loueke is a consummate jazz musician with a great command of complex harmony. His African origins are writ large in his music; the man and his work are symbols of the internationalisation of jazz. Whether appearing in his trio, Gilfema, or playing solo, he is fascinating to watch. Graceful and poised, he taps the neck of his custom-made nylon-string guitar with his fingers as if it were a bongo or conga. His chords can be full and rich, and they invariably perambulate into fleet, playful percussion. Occasionally he uses samples and electronics, but deploys these with subtlety.

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Loueke is a sensitive player who has a huge gift for nuancing his improvisations with delicate tonal detail at low volume. And then there's his voice: an imposing figure who stands well over six feet tall, he has a fluttering, evanescent falsetto. His choruses, often sung in a whisper, recall the delivery of the Cameroonian master bassist-singer Richard Bona or the Brazilian icon Milton Nascimento.

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Loueke will perform at the South Bank Centre in London during this year's African Music Festival, and will surely be one of the highlights of the event. He is just one of the artists in the lineup whose work blurs the boundaries between jazz and so-called "world" music.

Like Loueke, the Tunisian Anouar Brahem is a virtuoso string player. However, his weapon of choice is a non-western instrument: the oud, or short-necked lute, which is found all over North Africa and Turkey. This bulbous, beautifully carved wooden device yields a quivering, plaintive sound that loosely evokes classical guitar but has a resonance not dissimilar to that of plucked piano strings. For the past five years, Brahem has led a trio featuring the pianist Francois Couturier and the accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier. His music has an inherently lyrical quality. …