World Music Report - review of Jelell / by Leni Stern

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. But most of all it means longer days and nights of preparation and practice. Leni Stern has certainly done all of these things. This is clear from the results of her album, Jelell. So why go through all that trouble? Because Senegal is a wonderful place to make a record. It is the home of mbalax–rhythm in the Wolof dialect of Senegal and the home of the Sing Sing drummers and the Faye family, that is the family of brothers of Alioune Faye, master sabar drummers who play on Ms. Stern’s exquisite album. The album does wonders to lift the spirits also because Ms. Stern is in full flight throughout the sessions and she also produces masterful music—both on her guitar, for which she is eminently well-known and on the vocals, sung in a voice that is exposed voice with naked expression, all of which is mighty attractive. Not that anything less is expected from the German-born US-based guitarist, who plays in a voice that is almost speech-like. This in turn is eminently suited to what she is trying to do on this album.

Ms. Stern is making a statement here. It is all about being one with the world around her. Her music is one of social awareness mixed in with the excitement of discovery. There is an almost childlike excitement about her voice—both that which is instrumental as well as that which is vocal. This is a hallmark of that genius that dwells inside Ms. Stern. It is not possible to tame such wild beauty; only to harness it for the purposes of the music and this is done like a masterly musical wrangler that Ms. Stern is and always was. It comes from the Germanic side of her music: from a questioning mind that can never be satisfied with the banal and the ordinary. It enables Ms. Stern to see things from the inside out. Likewise her music lays bare her soul for all to see. It is raw and unvarnished and visceral; ideally suited for the venturesome spirit that seems to guide her on her every musical quest. Here Africa in general and Senegal in particular opens things up for her. Her mighty Senegalese trio and the sabar drummers complete the circle. They also—and this is why the album works so well—show the interconnectedness of all things. This is eminently suited to what Ms. Stern is also trying to achieve on this wonderful record.

The colours that Ms. Stern paints her music with are also wonderful and earthy. Her radiant and resonant guitar provides the glimmer and glitter for her to mix into this earthy palette, which combined with her singular voice, makes the music altogether memorable. This revolves around the title track, “Jelell” which translates as “Take It” an invitation to grab life by the scruff of the neck and run with it. The bassist, Mamadou Ba and the lead drummer, Alioune Faye, both of whom make a truly joyful noise also excel on the superb portrait, “Babacar”. The drummers also shine on this chart as they do on the show-opener, “Safal”. But then the rest of the album is also mesmerising thanks to the alluring style of the guitarist, but also to the majestic drumming and the mbalax of the album as a whole.