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Like many of the performers at this year’s London African Music Festival, Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke trades in global musical influences and confronts tradition with modernity.
But his ability to fuse the edgy harmonies of contemporary jazz with the gentler sentiments of African classicism sets him apart, and not only from fellow African musicians.
Loueke tours regularly with such jazz greats as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, both of whom prize individuality above technique, and his understated virtuosity is matchless, as this gig’s two sets showed.
Loueke’s guitar-playing is rich in tone and texture, whether accompanying his own harmonised vocals or on flat-out jazz improvisation. The lush acoustic picking and dense harmonic structures, especially when fleshed out by electronic gadgetry, need sensitive accompaniment to avoid overcrowding, and at this gig he used the sparse setting of acoustic bass and drums.
His compositions have equally minimalist beginnings – unaccompanied back-porch strumming, funky slap bass guitar lines, a unison riff with acoustic bass – but unfold into classic interactive jazz improvisation that is bursting with ideas and released tension.
Loueke set the trend from the outset. He opened the evening unaccompanied, pensively strumming his damped guitar strings, accompanying his harmonised vocal blues with a watery guitar tone. A simple repeated bass riff and the sparest of drum beats lent support, although the meter was a complex five-four.
Gradually they upped the ante, the bass riff was jettisoned, the drummer got a solo and suddenly we were into the incessant cymbal beats of modern jazz, with Loueke singing along to his angular guitar lines George Benson-style.
Other introductions included ghostly voices, the sounds of an African thumb piano and slapped bass lines. Loueke is also adept at using his guitar as a percussion instrument, slapping its body to get a full range of effects, including the bendy thumps of a tabla. Occasionally he clicks his tongue for an extra rhythmic layer.
But while these may appear to be the tricks of a one-man band, they were always a curtain call for the meat of the evening, top-notch jazz. Bass and drums both got their chance to shine, the Italian Massimo Biolcati on a liquid bass introduction and Hungarian Ferenc Nemeth on crowd-raising drum solos, and overall delivered exactly the right balance of virtuosity and restraint.
The close relationship between African music and jazz is not new, of course. Roy Ayers, who opened the festival on Friday, not only recorded with the Nigerian political activist and musician Fela Kuti in the early 1980s, but also set up a record label with him.
Jazz was an integral part of the townships’ cultural response to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Trumpeter Claude Deppa’s band reference the rhythms at Cargo tonight, and vocal-guitar duo Pinise Saul and Lucky Ranku reference the songs with their “South African Songbook” project at the Southbank Centre on May 26.
But jazz is only one input to this festival, as star performers from the north to the south of the continent contend with the power of modern dance and the pull of tradition.
Overall, the 25 concerts will present the whole range of African music, from spiritual vocals and traditional instrumentation to full-on brass sections, rappers and DJs.
And the mixed nationalities and linguistic diversity of so many of the bands underlines another common theme of this year’s festival – music’s potential to be a healing force at a time of ethnic division.
The fifth London African Music Festival continues until Wednesday May 30. Tel +44 0871 663 2500 or www.londonafrican musicfestival.com.