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.” ◀