Sign up for our free newsletter
Despite Art Blakey’s admonition that “jazz doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Africa,” musicians everywhere have never stopped trying to establish the link. Americans like Kahil El’Zabar usually think of African music in terms of traditional percussion and tribal rhythms; guitarist Lionel Loueke, who’s from Benin, fuses his jazz with melodic West African pop. That approach only further confounds the “authenticity” debate, but on Karibu, Loueke’s major-label debut, its primary effect is to generate music of startling beauty. Loueke is an acoustic player, and the new songs often sound like folk music at first (an impression that Loueke reinforces with soft humming and tongue-clicking). Indeed, the album opens with that plain feeling on the title track. But after a half-minute of Loueke, bassist Massimo Biolcati, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth’s pat-a-cake lilt, the song opens up to become a lovely reverie of melody and Loueke’s Swahili singing; it’s like emerging from the deep woods into a clearing with a lucid waterfall. Karibu excels at just such musical surprises. The shuffling “Zala” morphs into a mad percussive tumble; the centerpiece, “Light Dark,” begins as an academic study in dissonance between Loueke and guests Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, but the corrosive harmonies collapse a third of the way through, and a sunny major key takes their place—only to be covered over by dissonance again in the third act. If the folksy tunefulness represents Afro-pop in Loueke’s fusion, the harmonic labyrinths are the jazz element, which is apparent everywhere but reigns supreme on the Hancock and Shorter tracks. While the two legends don’t rewrite the trio’s musical language, they do compel a more focused and spirited interplay from the musicians. Hancock and Nemeth set off explosions on the pianist’s showcase, “Seven Teens,” while on Coltrane’s “Naima,” the whole trio works in opposition to Shorter’s expressive soprano-sax melodies. Both jazz and African music are founded on interlocking rhythms, albeit in different varieties. Loueke resolves the two forms by crafting long, odd meters—“Seven Teens” is so named for its 17/4 meter; “Agbannon Blues” is in 13/4—then disguising them with accents and transitions placed on the even beats so the rhythms seem as regular as walking. Like Karibu’s Afro-pop suffusion, it makes the musical complexities pleasing to the ear, but it also builds a bridge between the disparate African and American legacies. Art Blakey, wherever he is, had better start rethinking his position.