Two international jazz artists, Celine Rudolph and Lionel Loueke offered music fans in Lagos, a very hypnotic escapism from the fever-pitch city life, says Yinka Olatunbosun

West Africa must be fortunate to have been picked by the touring music duo, Berlin-based Celine Rudolph and New York-based Lionel Loueke. Elsewhere, West Africa is under scrutiny for ebola, malaria and other unpleasant news, sometimes, slightly exaggerated to scare away foreigners. But Loueke, a US-based jazz musician with roots in Republic of Benin certainly knows better than that, having been born and bred in Africa.

Largely influenced by the music of King Sunny Ade, George Benson, Herbie Hancock and Jimi Hendrix, Loueke didn’t start playing guitar till his late teens. Cash-strapped, he worked for about a year to raise money to buy his own guitar and was playing African pop music long before he discovered jazz through a friend, who brought a George Benson album from Paris. His break in music came with winning a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, his tutors found his style of playing the guitar quite intriguing. Loueke grew into a self-exerting musician. He was said to have inserted weak batteries in his old cassette player to hear how he played. Perhaps, half-tone slower. When he arrived in US, all he wanted was to play like the Yankees. In time, he found his own voice in music with albums such as “In a Trance”, “Mwaliko”, “Heritage” and “Virgin Forest”.

On her part, Rudolph isn’t just another music adventurer. Her parentage is quite cosmopolitan, with a French mother and a music-loving German father who was an amateur guitarist, jamming with some bands including Brazilian bands. In his large music collection, he had some Fela albums in Berlin where they lived. Rudolph started playing piano as a child; but composing as an autodidact and by the age of 12, she was writing French songs!

“I was singing along with those records without knowing what was meant. But I loved the sound of it,” she recalled at a breakfast meeting in Victoria Island, Lagos before the concert. Her father brought home the talking drum to Berlin. That background really explained her gravitation towards African elements in her music. In 2010, Rudolph won the prestigious German Echo Jazz Award for Best Vocal artist with several albums on her sleeves, even as a professor and head of Jazz Vocals Department at Dresden Hochschule fuer Musik.

Luoeke and Rudolph’s paths met five years ago at a jazz festival, where they listened to eachother’s music. They quickly identified the similarities in their music elements and deliberated on future collaborations. The result was the award-winning collaborative album released on October 27, 2017, titled, “Obsession”.

Before their concert at Jazzhole, Ikoyi, the duo shared some coffee and some creamy details of their career lives from their chance meeting that led to studio work and tours with some jazz-influencers in Lagos. These include the convener, Lagos Jazz Series, Ozi Bazunu, who was instrumental to bringing to Nigeria Marcus Miller, Bob James, Ola Onabule and a part of the Lagos jazz club, Blue Notes; the high-octane performer, Femi Leye; jazz radio show host, Peter Fisher while two men from the Inspiro Productions, incidentally, both named Segun Adebisi, represented the convener of the Lagos International Jazz Festival, Ayoola Shadare who was touring Berlin and other major cities in Europe on a jazz mission.

At the breakfast meeting, the director, Goethe-Institut Nigeria, Friederike Moschel declared happily that the night’s concert was the German cultural centre’s parting shot before the August break. Of course, Goethe-Institut has this age-long tradition of leaving Lagos fans with some nice lingering taste of cultural offerings before closing its doors for a month. After the breakfast, Luoeke made a surprising request: to be taken to a nice eatery for some egusi for his lunch.

Leaning on the bar that concert night at Jazzhole were some early birds waiting for the jazz ensemble. A few others arrived arm-in-arm while the little surprise came when a father arrived with a tiny yet colourful school bag on his shoulder and his pre-elementary school age-son, presumably the owner of the bag. He was determined to enjoy the night against the odds of parental obligations.

At centre-stage, Rudolph’s black jump suit was nicely lit with her multi-coloured African necklace as she began this music dialogue with Luoeke. Luoeke’s performance that night exemplifies what he said earlier that day about what most African jazz do with the jazz material: they don’t let jazz change their style but they blend it with it. Loueke believes that many African jazz artists have learnt the music genre without necessarily being restricted by scales and keys.

Rudolph’s jazz-influenced balladry is a blend of European classical music, Brazilian and French. The award-winning vocalist sang with a voice range that oscillates between the Nora Jones’ softness and Mariam Makeba’s growl. The duet, “New Day” is a very smooth collaboration with Luoeke’s acoustic support and his non-verbal vocals done with heavy beatboxing, keeping a steady rhythmic flow. This technique is very common with jazz singing legends such as Ella Fitzgerald as well as other acappella singers or better still barbershop quartets in New York. Rudolph matched up to that skillful performance with her own version of it in the song titled, “Fabula”.

It’s almost impossible to separate improvisation from jazz as the duo demonstrated at the concert. Rudolph’s electronic playback device substituted for a backup howling sound that she needed with her performance. The song, “Here Comes the Rain” was particularly solemn, adding to the night’s therapeutic playlist from the duo. The concert was given a befitting wrap with the song, “C’est un Love Song”, which swept the audience into singing the refrain, though just a few knew the exact words of the song.

The West Africa tour by Rudolph and Luoeke which ended on July 31, covered Dakar, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Lome, Lagos, Accra and Cotonou.

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