If ever we needed a brother or a sister, we sure do need one now, what with busy battlefields and all this brokeness. This is where "Nonvignon" comes in, one of the stickiest songs of Benin-born recording artist Lionel Loueke's Blue Note debut, Karibu. Written on a two-hour lunch break in 2002 at the behest of Loueke's then teacher, Terence Blanchard, it's rosy by definition. "Nonvignon is my middle name, my African name," Loueke explains. "Nonvignon means it's good to have a brother." So it shouldn't be surprising that the song's melody taunts like an older sis and is as unshakeable as a baby bro.
Growing up, Loueke's older brother wouldn't let him touch his guitar, so Loueke didn't pick up the instrument until he was 17. His West Africa-meets-the-West approach was developed through study in Paris, Boston, and Los Angeles—all under mentor and former bandleader Blanchard at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The trumpeter had asked Loueke to write a simple African song, the result was "Nonvignon." "I'm saying let's all be brothers and sisters and use that gift we receive." Loueke says of the lyrics, which are in his native Fon. "It's a joyful and peaceful song."
The 35-year-old clearly savors time spent with Blanchard and prominent endorser Herbie Hancock. The three spent over two months together on tour last year and Loueke doesn't distinguish between the music and life lessons gleaned. "I learned to chant through Herbie Hancock," Loueke says of the noted Buddhist. "Terence chants now as well, so we have a lot to talk about besides music, and I think that always comes through in the music anyway. For me, it's one thing."
Chants and world peace notwithstanding, Loueke's musicianship is surprising and rhythmically complex—he was a percussionist before he picked up a six-string Godin—and not always easy to swallow. But the soft spoken and, on the surface, sober Loueke, is committed to learning—his parents are both educators—and therefore compelled to try new things along with his trio-mates, Berklee College of Music buds Ferenc Nemeth and Massimo Biolcati.
"I don't like to do the same thing over and over," Loueke says in regards to his best-known composition, "Benny's Tune." "I don't know how many different time signatures we play on it. We play in five, in six, and seven... on Terence's CD, it's in 11." "Benny's Tune" is a love song that he wrote around the same time as "Nonvignon." The antsy Karibu version draws on the sound of Benin and environs, but allows space for seamless straight-ahead improvisation. It's a combination Loueke owns.
When asked if "Benny's Tune" is melancholic, Loueke suggests otherwise. "The lyrics are not sad at all," he says of the song he wrote for his wife of seven years, Benedicta. "As musicians, we're always on the road traveling and she's at home taking care of our kids. It's a way for me to say thanks to her." The depth of that love has led both up-and-coming and established artists to put their stamp on it, but Loueke's version, denial aside, emits a bit of dolor. The Loueke family's loss; jazz listeners' gain.