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Leni Stern has made her marks in the world of jazz with her trademark inventive guitar exploration and her unrestricted sound that perfunctorily makes use of her diverse musical and cultural influence. Join Leni and Lorens as she talks about microphones, artist grants, African music, self-releasing a record, and many other important yet fun stuff. (Music credit: ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Mercy’ by Leni Stern). - Lorens Chuno
You never know whom you're gonna encounter at a Pasadena golf course, but a guitarist from Bavaria and a bassist and a drummer from Senegal rank low on the probability scale. Their convocation was realized via a guitarist from the San Fernando Valley, though, so, y'know, music unites.
The union of improbabilities and the international scope qualify among the many reasons to catch Leni Stern the couple of times per year she hits SoCal, but this occasion adds a layer of Chandleresque mystery. You drive winding roads along a scenic South Pasadena ravine. You get lost and double back, arriving at Arroyo Seco Golf Course. You pick up your sandwich and booze from the functional café. Just off the putting green, you enter a bare-bones room with a few chairs, tiny tables, and a red velour curtain that looks like a magician's backdrop.
The magic starts with "If I Were Crazy," its plucky African Strat/bass unison riff followed by Mamadou Ba's blazing bass solo – this lanky watcher requires no warm-up. Stern finds her high vocal range and strokes entirely different guitar patterns behind Ba and the happy-swatting hand-drum solo of Alioune Faye.
Stern's new "Get Together" has a jerky rhythm and a zesty bridge; her solo is a complementary melody in itself, and when Faye launches his drum storm she pitches in on calabash, her earthy slaps accented by the metallic click of a ring on her hand.
Stern introduces her "favorite guitarist" (sorry, Mike), shortbrim-hatted Adam Levy, and they build up a display of jumpy riddim and tangled interplay – Levy full & fluid, Stern cutting, wide-ranging and subtly inflected. Put these two in a DMV and they could create a mood.
No point in spelling out every detail of "Tuareg Dance," "Mercy," "Thief in the Night," "Still Bleeding" or "The Cat Has Stolen the Moon," but amid all the aching balladry and ribcage-rattling beatdown, a few things stand out in memory. Like the way Levy's mischievous string bends exquisitely torture the scales. Like Ba's use of an electronic octave effect to give his improvisations a ghost dimension. Like Faye's wide smile as he disrupts the molecules of his sturdy skins. Like black-clad Stern's vigorous rattle shaking, soulful n'goni fingerwork and eyes-closed vocal star search, and the African scene she describes when fishermen dumped their whole day's catch rather than accept the price the middlemen were offering. Not to mention the occasional mistakes, delectable because they show that this music is bursting fresh from the players' hearts and hands, never to be repeated. Some improvisers play slicker; no one plays better.
A local couple, regulars at this hidden den, approach me at the set break after noticing my notebook. Expressing admiration for Ba's rapidly articulate note-shaping and amazement at the whole presentation, they wonder why Leni Stern is not a little more famous. I can't answer that.
Few artists unite the American Jazz tradition with world influences more effectively than genre-defying guitar adventurer Stern. Whether she's playing on her own solo albums, or on Eclectic (the collaboration between Eric Johnson and her husband, Mike Stern), captivating rhythms, memorable melodies, and the tantalizing tones of a wide range of stringed instruments are her raison d'etre.
Mittlerweile sind Leni und Mike Stern seit drei Jahrzehnten verheiratet, reisen jedes Jahr nach Indien und machen viel Musik – in je eigenen Projekten. Zusammengespielt wird nur zu Hause. Dass Leni Stern sich nach Fusion- und Singer-Songwriter-Phasen seit Längerem auf anderen musikalischen Wegen befindet, erzählt Mike Stern regelmäßig stolz. „Du musst hören, wie Leni Ngoni spielt!“ Mittlerweile ist Leni Sterns neue CD Dakar Suite auf dem Markt, und die Gitarristin schildert auf Tour mit ihrem Trio mit Mamadou Ba (b) und Alioune Faye (perc) ihren Weg zur afrikanischen Musik. „Ich bin ja schon eine Weile in der afrikanischen Kultur unterwegs. Vor Jahren wurde ich zu dem berühmten Friedensfestival in die Wüste eingeladen. Da sind viele Musiker hingefahren, um auf das Schicksal der Tuareg aufmerksam zu machen. Wir haben dort ganze Nächte durchgespielt, ich lernte Bassekou Kouyaté kennen und habe mich in die Ngoni, die afrikanische Gitarre, verliebt und die Ursprünge des Blues erforscht. Ich habe mitgespielt und wurde gelobt, wie toll ich malische Musik spielen könne.“
Dass sie diese Musik noch nie gespielt hatte, verriet die Münchner Gitarristin nicht. Im Blues kannte sie sich aus, und dass der Blues und die Musik Malis so viele Gemeinsamkeiten haben, wunderte sie nicht lange. „Die Bluesriffs, die wir kennen, stammen tatsächlich aus der malischen Kultur, die mit den Sklaven nach Amerika gekommen ist. Der Ursprung des Jazz und des Swing liegt da.“ Leni Stern konnte schnell ein Album aufnehmen, da sie in einen Wettbewerb rutschte, den die UNESCO für Salif Keita förderte. Dessen Plattenfirma hatte einen Wettbewerb für junge Toningenieure ausgerufen, die besten fünf durften mit Keitas Technikern lernen. „Die UNESCO hatte für dieses Projekt keine Band organisiert. Da ich beim Festival war, baten sie mich, mit den Festivalfreunden ins Studio zu kommen, damit sie jemanden zum Aufnehmen haben. Alu Maye war mein erstes afrikanisches Album. Ich bin in die USA zurück, habe noch gemastert, Mike Stern und Michael Brecker haben noch gespielt. Die ganzen Jazzmusiker waren begeistert, weil sie wie ich diese Sprache des Jazz entdeckt haben.“
Ziemlich schnell kehrte die Gitarristin nach Afrika zurück. Salif Keita fand die zierliche Jazzmusikerin so gut, dass er sie in seine Band holte. Ganz nach Afrika umziehen wollte sie nicht, weil sie ja einen Mann und eine Karriere in New York hatte, wie sie lachend betont. Aber sie fuhr regelmäßig nach Mali und in den Senegal. Bei Salif Keita lernte sie viel. „Wir waren in seiner Band drei Gitarristen, und die anderen beiden sind die größten afrikanischen Gitarristen. Für die Soli wollte Salif den amerikanischen Sound und hat mich nach vorne geschoben.“ In einer Frau sahen die afrikanischen Musiker keine Konkurrenz. Dadurch bekam Leni Stern Sachen gezeigt, die männlichen Musikern nie gezeigt worden wären. „Die haben mir lange nicht verraten, wie die Ngoni gestimmt wird. Irgendwann hieß es: ,Meine Kleine, komm her, ich zeig dir das.‘ So bin ich in die Geheimnisse afrikanischer Musik eingewiesen worden. Jetzt sagen meine Musiker, dass ich wie eine Afrikanerin spiele. Als Jazzmusiker ist das nicht so schwierig, weil wir offene Ohren haben. Man kann nicht genau aufschreiben, was wir da machen, das ist dem Jazz sehr ähnlich. Als weiße Frau mitten in der afrikanischen Tradition zu sitzen und die Geheimnisse zu lernen, da wusste ich gar nicht, was das für ein Privileg ist. Es ist irrsinnig kompliziert, auch wenn es vermeintlich einfache Volksmelodien sind. Mike hat auf der neuen CD mitgespielt und musste immer wieder nach der Eins suchen. Normalerweise ist er der Chef der Gitarristen im Hause Stern, momentan bin ich es!“
Leni Sterns Mission ist es, den Blues zurück nach Afrika zu bringen. Die Riffs der alten Bluesmusiker kann man alle in der afrikanischen Musik finden. Sogar die ungewöhnlichen Arten, das Instrument zu stimmen, haben die Blueser übernommen. Auch eine bessere Funkgitarristin ist sie dadurch geworden, weil man keine Akkorde auf der Ngoni spielen kann. Viel gelernt hat Leni Stern über ihre fantastischen Mitmusiker: Mamadou Ba, musikalischer Leiter bei Harry Belafonte, lernte sie in New York kennen, leichtfingerig flitzen bei dem Bassisten die Hände über das Griffbrett. Er stellte Leni Alioune Faye vor, der aus einer großen Perkussionsfamilie kommt. „Meine aktuelle Platte habe ich mit seiner ganzen Familie aufgenommen, mit sieben Perkussionisten. Ich hatte so eine Power hinter mir, es fühlte sich an, als ob mich die New Yorker Subway schiebt.“
Mittlerweile besinnen sich einige Jazzmusiker auf afrikanische Musik, doch Leni Stern ist eine Vorreiterin. Sie war wirklich an den Quellen, hat gelernt, wie die Musik weitergegeben wird, ohne notiert zu sein, hat die Sprachen gelernt und sich einen Platz als weiße Gitarristin in den männerdominierten Bands Afrikas erarbeitet. „Bei meinen Stücken ist afrikanische Musik die Grundlage, bei den meisten anderen ist es Jazz mit African Flavour. Und wir haben Texte, die ich in Wolof, Bambara und Yoruba singe. Ich war in den Bands, habe die Sprachen gelernt, bin über die ganze Westküste von Afrika gereist und habe dort Konzerte gegeben. Meine Reise geht weiter!“
Leni Stern, "Dakar Suite" (LSR). In addition to the vivid and authentic African scenes Stern often paints, the guitarist-singer's expanded ensemble offers two versions of the lyrical "Dark Blue," which will survive among her most enduring works. Esperanza pianist Leo Genovese grows exuberant foliage.
When perennial guitar star Leni Stern and spring sprout Emily Elbert both slung their axes recently at Montana's Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop & Festival, they spent less time demonstrating fret flash than sharing outdoor adventures. So when the Texas-born, Berklee-educated Elbert returned to her Silver Lake digs, she followed up on Stern's suggestion that they "do a show and get tattoos!" (Inked Thursday, the tats were Elbert's first and Stern's 800th.)
Friday in the tidy upstairs restaurant bar Room 5, Stern, Elbert and New Zealandish electric bassist Ben Shepherd kept jumping on and off the little stage, wailing in solo, duo and trio configurations. Babyfaced Elbert can't be as young as she looks, else she could not have acquired that offhanded ease w/ the vocalise, that natural flex of the funkypickin' wrist or that compositional togetherness. The multiplicitous Stern brought her gold Strat, her n'goni (Afro banjo), her Malified original tunes and her black specs. Shepherd grooved and soloed with polished zip; close your eyes and sometimes you might have thought he was a flugelhorn.
Elbert's songs pulled worlds together -- "Evolve" combined R&B, jazz and reggae while comparing modern humanity to a space between notes; she elevated effortlessly to her head voice on another tune with a nice morning vibe and a high guitar arpeggio; another number put funky chord changes at the service of a folky romantic ballad; the pretty "World Without Your Love" soared high; the rapidly strutting "Visitor" jerked with upbeat subterranean-homesick blackblond jazzitude. Her vocal harmonies blended like ice cream on Stern's songs, even locking in with African dialect at one point.
Stern's plaints of water, wind and sand made for communicative counterpoint. When she sang about a fisherman, her leads leaped like a fish; on "Rabbit," although her chromatic changes darted elusively through the brush, Elbert stayed right in the hunt; Stern's deftly plucked n'goni riffs drove "Still Bleeding"; the New Orleans shoogaboo "On the Outside," as always, made a great case for any musician to throw her own damn party rather than wait for somebody's invitation. Stern added a subtle electronic loop behind her n'goni on the quietly rolling "Like a Thief," and she changed guitar tones on every song, now retaining a storyteller's sense of continuity, now startling the crowd with the boldly outlandish scales she gets away with because her spirit guardian watches over her.
Now that I think of it, these women were casually throwing down a torrent of musical information and inflection that I can begin to absorb only in retrospect. And they had, like, a day and a half to put it together. Huh.
Keep in mind that sharp-eared Stern also befriended Esperanza Spalding when that bass & vocal phenom was hardly a dot on the music-world graph. So if talent counts for anything -- and it does, so shut up, all y' old cynics -- Emily Elbert, who's already logged four independent albums, will be around for a while. And I'll keep grabbing every chance to get an earful of Leni Stern's otherworldly world.
Santa Fe New Mexican/Pasatiempo
By Paul Weideman
Leni Stern’s music was always good — her fluid, powerful electric guitar exercised in a variety of settings, mostly on her own compositions — but she has really bloomed since she began her collaborations with African musicians. In 2006, the jazz/blues guitarist and singer played the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu, Mali, sharing stages with Malian pop singer Salif Keita and Baaba Maal, a singer and guitarist from neighboring Senegal. Describing the festival action in an interview with American Blues Scene Magazine last December, Stern said, “Everybody jams! I wasn’t sure what to play, so I tried playing my blues licks, and they said, ‘Oh, she knows Malian music!’ ”
It was one of the first in a sequence of insights she has experienced regarding the similarities between West African music and American blues and jazz. See if you can hear them as well when the Leni Stern African Trio plays Gig Performance Space on Saturday, March 7. One element to listen for is the call-and-response effect. Another, which no one will miss, is the strong, dynamic drumming. “That’s something that’s been so absent in the Western Hemisphere,” Stern said in a recent interview with Pasatiempo. “You also find it in Brazilian music and Cuban music — all these styles that are very shaped by their rhythmic elements.”
She learned a lot from joining forces with three of Mali’s music stars: Toumani Diabate and Bassekou Kouyate and his wife, Amy Sacko. Stern expanded her instrumental repertoire by studying the ngoni, the African ancestor of the American banjo, with Kouyate. Sacko, the lead singer in his famous band, Ngoni Ba, took Stern to local weddings, baby namings, and funerals, where she played guitar using a portable amplifier.
Sacko also told her about West Africa’s griot storytelling tradition, which — like other elements of the music — came to the United States with the 17th- and 18th-century slave trade. The American Blues Scene article recalls the research of folklorist Alan Lomax, who wrote that, “through the work of performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson [and] Charlie Patton, the griot tradition survived full-blown in America with hardly an interruption.”
Back in New York City, Stern searched the African immigrant community, ultimately finding the two members of her current trio: bassist Mamadou Ba, who was once musical director for Harry Belafonte and has worked with avant-garde saxophonist Archie Shepp and Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi; and percussionist Alioune Faye, who is a member of Senegal’s renowned Sing Sing Five Family Orchestra.
Stern last recorded in Mali during the 2012 coup d’état. “The situation has improved, but tourism is ruined and the music scene is damaged. The big Festival in the Desert is no more,” she lamented. “I like being low-profile, and I go to the part of towns where the ngoni makers are. I quietly slip in and out of the country, but nothing where my face would be on a poster.”
Leni Stern is a traveler. That statement opens her biography at www.lenistern.com and symbolizes her musical openness. Not just blues and jazz and African music, but other music of the world inhabits her sensibility. In 2001, for instance, she spent three months studying ragas in Mumbai, India, and performed at the Bombay Jazz Festival. But her music education began with lessons in classical European piano, at age six. One day, she went up to the attic and found her mother’s acoustic guitar. She tried playing along with her five brothers, but their loud musical antics sonically overwhelmed her. Her mother said they’d have to buy her an electric guitar. That was a Gibson ES-330.
“I was ten years a classical piano player, but that was the formal German training, and on the guitar I could just try to copy things that I liked. Now I wish I had kept up with the piano, but when you are a teenager, all the rules and regulations are difficult. The electric guitar is what I identified with, and I didn’t think the grand piano was going to get me a boyfriend.”
In her youth, Stern worked as an actress on a German television show for a few years, but in 1977 she switched gears, enrolling at Berklee School of Music in Boston. “I was at Berklee for two and a half years. I was shuttling back and forth between Germany and America, then I moved to New York.”
She was in the jazz groove. Joining her for her 1985 debut album, Clairvoyant, were Paul Motian on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar, and Stern later led bands with saxophonist Michael Brecker and guitarist John McLaughlin. More recently, she has worked with a roster that includes bassist Esperanza Spalding and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Stern won Gibson Guitar’s Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year Award for five consecutive years.
At a certain point, she moved from the Gibson ES-330 to a Les Paul model. “From there I went to the Fender Telecaster. I started loving the honking sound of the Fender. It’s so expressive!”
On her first six albums, she was strictly an instrumentalist. (As is her husband, jazz guitarist Mike Stern.) But beginning with 1995’s Words, her records had her both playing and singing. In 1997, she established her own recording company, Leni Stern Records (LSR), which has published all her subsequent CDs. Jellel, her 20th CD, was released in 2013. The title is a phrase in Africa’s Wolof dialect that means “Take it!” or “Seize the moment!” That sentiment truly drives the album: Check out the title-track video on YouTube.
Stern said two of her younger inspirations these days are singer Gretchen Parlato and bassist Richard Bona, who played on Mike Stern’s 2012 album, All Over the Place. Leni Stern guests on her husband’s newest, Eclectic (with Eric Johnson), which came out last October on the Heads Up label.
She is now at work on a new album. “We are, and we will do some of those new songs in Santa Fe. I like to take new songs to live audiences, and they will take shape — in this case, in America and in Europe. Then we will record it in May. I have a lot of wordless songs this time. And a lot of the lyrics are traditional chants. They’re all folk songs that we arrange.”
She will be bringing an ngoni, as well as her Tele-caster, to Santa Fe. “Absolutely, I will. I adapted the ngoni to play my music, and it’s a continuous quest because it lends itself to that very well. I believe when the West Africans were brought here, they had their instruments taken away, and they tried to play on the guitar what they used to play on the ngoni. A lot of the old blues riffs are easier to play on the ngoni than the guitar.”
In West Africa, Stern saw that the musicians string their ngonis with fishing line. “You wind your own strings. Toumani Diabate put harp strings on the kora, so Bassekou and I tried putting harp strings on the ngoni, and Bassekou has both harp strings and fishing line,” she said, laughing. “So now I’m importing harp strings to Mali by the bucket.” ◀
"And my wife, Leni, happened to be in the studio and we asked her to improvise on the spot a couple of preludes to songs, with her doing vocals and playing the n'goni. I don’t know how she does it with the n'goni—I’m still into trying to figure out how to play the same old blues licks on guitar. We were thinking of doing short vignettes in between some of the songs, but what Leni did was perfect."
- Mike Stern - in the FEB/2015 DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE article SIX STRING SUMMIT, about recording his new record 'Eclectic' with Eric Johnson.
By Debra Devi
The blues is a universal language, and electric guitarist Leni Stern’s fluency has lured her into African adventures beyond her wildest dreams — from jamming in Timbuktu to playing Carnegie Hall with Senegalese stars. She has learned another language―Wolof―and has become a griot, a member of the West African class of traveling musical storytellers considered to be the forerunners to American country-blues singers. As Alan Lomax explained in The Land Where the Blues Began, “through the work of performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson [and] Charlie Patton, the griot tradition survived full-blown in America with hardly an interruption.”
Stern, who was born in Germany and lives in New York City, won Gibson Guitar’s Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year Award for five consecutive years and has led ensembles with such musical legends as Dennis Chambers, Bill Frisell, and Michael Brecker–but she began her storied career as a blues guitarist. And it was her blues playing that initially earned her the respect of Senegal and Mali’s finest musicians. In the process, West Africa stole her heart. Stern celebrates that love on her irresistibly upbeat new CD Jelell, recorded in Senegal.
I met Stern at the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival & Workshop at Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana, where she and her husband, jazz guitarist Mike Stern, were Artists-in-Residence. Mike, who has played with Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius, released a wonderful collaborative album with Eric Johnson called Eclectic on October 27.
Despite the couple’s heady accomplishments, Leni and Mike both exude what Buddhists call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind”–an attitude of openness and eagerness to learn. In the Main Lodge―a huge log cabin where Artists-in-Residence like the Sterns, Dweezil Zappa, John Oates, Shelby Lynne and Lee Ritenour ate and hung out with faculty and students–you were highly likely to find Mike Stern asking another guitarist to “show me how to play that!”
I was instantly captivated by Leni’s charm, friendliness and obvious deep musical knowledge when she dropped by Matt Smith’s Versatile Guitarist class to demonstrate some African rhythms on the ngoni, a West African ancestor of the American banjo banjo. As she led the class into a slightly complicated yet very funky rhythm, she encouraged each of us to break out with a little soloing over it. The blues scale worked surprisingly well!
Later, she and I sat down for a chat in the Main Lodge, and I asked how her West African adventures began.
“I was a blues musician before I became a jazz musician,” Stern began in her lilting voice, which is still tinged with a German accent. “Growing up in Munich I discovered the blues from my brother’s record collection and from Radio Free Europe. There was a big blues scene in Munich from the American soldiers stationed there – and my brother was a fanatic with his blues collection.
“It was grounds for a severe beating if you scratched his records!” Stern added, laughing.
Stern’s mother was a classical guitarist-turned-lawyer. Stern dug her mother’s acoustic guitar out of storage one day, and tried to jam with her brothers. “I had five brothers and they were all a bit out of hand,” Stern recalled, “so when I tried to play my acoustic guitar with them, no one could hear me! My mother said ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to get you an electric guitar.’ I got a Gibson ES-330 and all she said was, ‘Does it have to be red?'”
Stern chuckled, adding, “It was strawberry red! And very big!”
“The emotion in the blues is its power,” Stern mused. “You can’t teach that. To make somebody feel something, that expressiveness – if they don’t feel it, you can’t make it happen.”
“In 2006,” Stern recalled, “I was invited to play Festival in the Desert three hours outside of Timbuktu in Mali – way out in the Sahara desert. That’s how I met so many African musicians. I loved African music, and had transcribed and studied it. But when I was thrown into the middle of it for the first time, I discovered that they would play their grooves over extended vamps. Everybody jams! I wasn’t sure what to play, so I tried playing my blues licks and they said, ‘Oh, she knows Malian music!’ They were so pleased! ”At first, they looked at me like I was pretty odd – a white woman playing electric guitar in the middle of the desert. I was the only white person in a ten-mile radius. But when I started to play the blues, they said ‘Oh good, she can play! She can play our music, thank God.’
“Initially, I protested! I said, ‘No, I don’t know your music–and I’m really eager to learn it!’ But they insisted that when I was playing the blues, I was playing their music.
“Everybody invited me to play, including Salif Keita [the albino Malian singer known as “The Golden Voice of Africa”], who later hired me for his band. I played with [famed Senegalese singer and guitarist] Baaba Maal, who brought me to play his Blues du Fleuve or “River Blues” Festival in the north of Senegal on the border of Mauritania.
At the Festival in the Desert, Stern became fast friends with ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate and his wife Ami Sacko / (dubbed “the Tina Turner of Mali” by Mojo magazine), who is not only a successful solo artist but also the lead singer of Ngoni Ba, her husband’s famous band.
“I’d go over to their tent all the time during the festival,” Stern said, “and me and Ami would go shopping―the Tuareg jewelers bring amazing things to the festival–and Ami started explaining to me the role of the griot, which is to tell the stories of the people. You put into song what’s going on during your time – like Bob Dylan, or Woody Guthrie! That’s the gig.”
In Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, Paul Oliver noted that “a [blues] singer like Lightnin’ Hopkins is very much a griot in personality, with a similar flair for spontaneous and devastating comment on the passing scene.”
“Ami learned to be a griot from her aunt, Fanta Sacko ,” Stern continued, “one of the first popular female singers in West Africa. The griots in their stories tell the history of their people, like which king conquered who, etcetera. But Ami also creates songs that tell the stories of the people of today. She sang my praise because I was her guest. She sang that I come from America and I am married to Michael Stern.
“The griot is the storyteller who introduces somebody,” Stern continued. “Since I could play, she started taking me with her to ceremonies – weddings, baby namings, funerals. I played electric guitar with a portable amp. I couldn’t play the ngoni well enough yet at that time, but I learned the songs on electric guitar and then eventually I translated the music to the ngoni, which I studied with Bassekou Kouyate.
“I learned how to be a griot from Ami. I saw how she’d send her little brother into the audience to gather information – who’s married to who, what family they come from, what the history of their family is, what special qualities each person has. The little brother would make notes on a tiny piece of paper, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and Ami would take that and write a song. The people in the audience know she’s looking for that information so they would tell the little brother: ‘say that she’s everybody’s best friend’ or ‘nobody goes hungry out of her house’ – and then Ami would include that praise in her song.
“In terms of the blues,” Stern added, “what was interesting to me was that the songs Ami taught me had that John Lee Hooker feel to them–that rhythm–and they were such dramatic tales. They felt like the blues to me. One song, for example, was the story of a man who was told by a seer that he was going to be rich, but that he mustn’t take anyone as his wife. Well, of course he does, and then he is poisoned on his wedding night. I mean, that’s just like a blues song!
The crossroads―a concept that looms large in the blues–also came up during Stern’s time in Mali, when she began teaching at a school. In the Malian tradition, Stern explained, “if you don’t initiate the teachers, no one is going to leave their children at the school. So I was taken to the lady who reads the cowry shells. She determined that the spirit that protects me is the spirit in the water; in Nigeria she’s called Yemoja. The lady gave me things to bury at the crossroads. As I was digging a hole to bury these things at sundown at the crossroads, I definitely had an eerie feeling!”
When she returned to New York, Stern found some top-notch musicians among the African immigrant community. “For years,” Stern explained, “I would record in Africa and then go to New York and put a band together with immigrants from Africa to play the music. But when I was going to start the new album, my band in New York said “We’re not good enough? You’ve got to go to Africa to record?”
“They really gave me the guilt trip!” Stern added, laughing, “so I brought my New York band back to where they’re from. It was great because we got to stay with their families. My lead drummer, Alioune Faye is a member of the famous Sing Sing Five Family Orchestra of drummers. So we got six of his brothers to come play and we then had seven brilliant percussionists from Senegal on the record.
“The album title, Jelell,” Stern noted, “is a Wolof word, and Wolof is one of the languages of Senegal that has seeped into the language of the blues over here. Jelell means “grab it,” and is part of a popular chant, jelell jelels jelell boula neche jelell, which means “go get your own!” or “grab the bull by the horns,” as we might say in English.
“With this album,” Stern added, “we hope to tour some blues festivals and invite blues musicians to sit in with our African band. Because call-and-response is equally important for both African bands and blues bands. If my drummer gets carried away with a solo and doesn’t call me, I don’t come in – that’s an African thing. Call-and-response is in every part of African music–in the drums, in the guitar, in the bass– everybody is talking and throwing musical ideas back and forth. That’s what we do in blues and jazz, too, but this is where it started.
“You know,” Stern continued, “the importation of African slaves to America had an effect rather like how the Greek slaves affected the Roman Empire. The Romans imported many Greek slaves, yet these Greek slaves came from a high culture and contributed a lot to Roman society. Similarly, the slaves who were brought to America were coming to a very young country, but they were from ancient societies with highly developed traditions. They brought ethics, philosophy, religion that had profound influences on America. The Romans were smart; they had those Greek slaves teach their children. And now our children are studying blues and jazz.
“It’s still hard today, though, for some Americans to accept what the Africans brought here, because it involves remembering that the early Americans who brought the slaves here were human rights offenders of the first degree. But as the pain and shame of slavery fades, the awareness of this contribution is increasing–and that is a wonderful thing!”
Live review: Leni Stern African Trio & friends at the Baked Potato, May 7.
Leni Stern is writing out her set lists at a table beside the stage. "I made such nice lists," she mutters to bassist Mamadou Ba, "and then I left them at the hotel."
With Ba in the band for several years now, they hardly need a map. I talked to Ba before the show, and learned that the tall & slim 50-year-old Senegalian (he looks 35) played with Harry Belafonte for 10 years; his delicate right-hand fingerwork and thumb popping are mostly self-taught from observing fusion heroes such as Marcus Miller; and like Stones fans who eventually worked back to Muddy Waters, he rediscovered his African folk roots later in life. I hardly recognized him tonight in his short-billed fedora, heavy bookworm specs and Converse tennies.
Stern sports loose black leatherette pants and four recent tattoos, which she showed off to friends earlier; the one on her right calf reads "Focus" in Japanese, no doubt to center her when she's squatting on the floor of a Malian schoolhouse, showing n'goni riffs to the local kids.
She'll save the n'goni (sorta like a uke or mandolin) until later. She tunes her old Strat, strums a soft chord and drifts into "Baonaan," a rain/love song from her trio's current "Jellel," punctuated by perky stop-start unisons with Ba. The trio has augmented regular hand drummer Alioune Faye with frequent collaborator Kofo the Wonderman on talking drum, and the thumpers' smiles, eye contact and excited interplay show how much they dig the teamwork. The first set focuses on more new stuff -- "Jellel," "Bubbles," "If I Were Crazy" and Ba's signature Arabic-flavored hope instrumental, "Babacar" -- before closing with what has become Stern's theme song for the last decade, the funky "On the Outside" ("Don't try to cage me in, I'm fine where I have always been").
Stern's voice is soothing, but her fingers are on fire. She lets sparks of Albert Collins, Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia pour through her, shaded with sinewy femininity, challenged by the thrilling chromatic modes she's been expanding on for a few years, and interspersed with harsh chordal bursts. Not many musicians dance this close to the edge, which is what makes Stern's live shows such adventures.
Between sets, Stern greets the faithful and poses for a snap with friend Esperanza Spalding, whose famous hair explosion is tied back asymmetrically tonight.
The second set spreads Stern's history around and widens the sound field with a couple of guest guitarists. Musicians Institute wheel Beth Marlis plugs in for the pensive "City Sing for Me" (from Stern's groundbreaking 1997 "Black Guitar") and tunes in with dead-on feel to some trebly funk/soul/reggae riddims (Stern's "Spirit in the Water" is in there someplace).
When omnipresent industry ax (and friend of Mike Stern) Jeff Richman takes over the old Fender Twin amp, Leni switches to percussive high plucking on n'goni and the drummers rock into a heavier thud groove. Richman echoes the chromatic stuff with a bit more restraint, dropping in sharp ping harmonics and bringing a bit more fusion tradition to the proceedings, though he adapts to every variation as Stern gets emotional with "Still Bleeding," darkly playful with "The Cat Has Stolen the Moon" and urgently plaintive with the Afro-reggae waltz "Save Me."
Stern rips a twisting, terrifying Strat lead before grabbing the n'goni again; she slings that aside and slaps into a vigorous drum jam. She's got more energy at the end than at the beginning, and the band has an early flight tomorrow. Well, don't become a musician if you like to sleep.
When a musician goes all the way to Dakar, Senegal to make a record that probably means many sleepless nights after many long recording sessions; probably also field recordings as well, or at least rehearsals in the field...Read More
Guitarist Leni Stern continues her foray into mixing jazz and African sounds on this excellent session of originals. She teams up with Mamadou Ba/b and Alioiune Faye/perc as the core foundation, but various percussionists, vocalists and keyboardists pop in like cameo actors in a Shakespeare play. Lithe guitar licks form melodies and rhythms that meld with the enticing percussion on pieces such as “Babacar” and “Bubbles” and a mix of vocals ranging from African chants to American rap contribute to material like “Gnate Yone” and “Jelell.” Through it all, Stern’s use of guitar has an loose and earthy touch, making her one of the few Westerners who has mastered the dancing guitars that permeate sounds ranging from Mali to Malawi. Excellent outing. - George W. Harris
The Los Angeles Times: “Leni Stern’s geographic journey yields spiritual fruit.”
The Washington Post: “Stern doesn't collaborate with the West Africans so much as commune with them, she never sounds out of her element, even when her pop and jazz sensibilities are most apparent.”
Downbeat Magazine: “The integration between Stern's music and the Mali musicians' mastery is nearly seamless.”
by Mark Saleski
Perhaps like a lot of jazz guitar fans, I came to Leni Stern by way of her husband Mike, the owner of the so-called “Chops of Doom.” But with no Internet as a guide (this was the late 1980s), my method of discovery was to spend far too many hours poking through the jazz bins at Tower Records...Read More
“Demal Tedi” is seductive. The song begins with a slow fade-up on a rocking-chair rhythm that launches the listener straight into a jazzy groove that bolsters both the multi-tracked whisper of Stern’s vocals and her slick guitar licks...Read More
Long fascinated by the varieties of music heard across the globe — she’s spent time in India studying that country’s music — Stern embraced the music of Mali and Senegal as part of a progression that has seen her adopting a host of musical traditions....Read More
LENI STERN: Drones for Peace
Any musician who uses his or her gift to help the nation come to terms with September 11 is an angel. Having said that, the deluge of post-tragedy works have proven it’s a risky business addressing real horror and loss through pop songs. Th constructs of words and music, verses and choruses, can compromise even the most sincere artistic intentions by being too Sesame Street (such as Paul McCartney singing "Talkin’bout freedom"), too righteous, or too gruesome. The pure sound of instrumental music, however, can express complicated emotions without agitating the listener with an inappropriate word or phrase. Even better, the individual’s imagination is free to interpret how the textures and melodies rouse their feelings.
For Leni Stern, the healing started with a groove. The New York-based guitarist, singer, songwriter, and orchestrator didn’t conceive her Finally the Rain has Come (LSR) as a remembrance of 9/11, but songs such as "For Peace to Come" were formed by her perceptions of living with the aftermath. "That song was inspired by this wild tabla and drum improv between Zakir Hussein and Keith Carlock that, to me, expressed the feeling of September 2001 in NYC" says Stern. "They just started playing, and I rolled tape." However, it took months for Stern to analyze the drum track and develop a song form. "I didn’t really know what to do with the track at first," she says, " but I knew I couldn’t not put it on the album – it was just too amazing. Eventually, I surmised the form was basically a pattern of 4 and 8 bar phrases, and I wrote a chord progression with my Martin that fit the rhythmic structure. Then I used my JamMan to loop layer drones in E, B, Am and D that fade in and out of the progression. That was the ‘peace’ part – a big, calming drone.
The tabla rhythms and drones- as well as Stern’s study Indian music amd her love for guitarist John McLaughlin’s western/eastern hybrids- inspired additional Indian textures.
"I decided to begin the song with an improvisation in the style of an India alap- which is a rhythmless outline of the feeling of a song," explains Stern. "I thought that was the best way to introduce this vibe of peace and calm and people connecting. That was something I needed at the time of tragedy, and I felt that was the right message for the song to deliver. Of course, there’s no guitar tradition in Indian music, but they have a 4,000-year-old improvisational technique that fascinates me. There are all these embellishments, and yet their choice of notes- and how they’ll use a single interval throughout a piece- are very disciplined. It’s a step further from modal improvisation, but I use their school of improvising within a normal western context- which is my tradition."
When the tabla/drum groove enters afer Stern’s intro, "For Peace to Come" builds and intertwines thematic layers with sitar and acoustic parts performed by Larry Saltzman, and fingerpicked lines played by former GP associate editor (and current Norah Jones sideman) Adam levy. "We spent one Sunday just finding ways of creating textures with guitars," says Stern. "It was like arranging an orchestra- you know, lines coming in and lines coming out- except that we really didn’t plan anything. I just said, ‘Let’s take all the guitars we have and see if we can do something with this beautiful percussion duet.’ We were just soloing along. It was a long process, and later I picked the parts that best fit the song."
The work also features violin lines by Jenny Scheinman and ends with what Stern calls "hillbilly" vocal harmonies. "I added the violin to show that we must remain calm in the face of anger and destructive and destructive power of terrorism," says Stern. "And the outro harmonies bring in this truly hopeful American element. With all the textures and emotional layer, arranging this song was like making a film. I found myself giving the players acting instructions more than musical feedback!"