Santa Fe Arts Journal / by Leni Stern

Soothing Sounds from Senegal

The Leni Stern African Trio fuses jazz and blues with traditional African music

April 30, 2018 by Emily Van Cleve

For more than a decade Leni Stern has been immersing herself in the traditional music of Senegal, which has complicated polyrhythms unfamiliar to most musicians trained in Western music. 

“Our European musical rhythms didn’t start getting complicated until the early part of the 20th century,” says Stern, a well-trained jazz singer and guitarist who was born in Munich, West Germany and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “What I’m interested in doing is finding a bridge between European culture and African rhythms. I’m just scratching the surface.”

Stern, along with longtime musical collaborators Mamadou Ba (bass) and Alioune Faye (sabar, djembe, calabas) forges a unique sound that fuses jazz and blues with Senegalese folk music.  

The Lenis Stern African Trio presents music from Stern’s latest album “3” as well as tunes from previous recordings at GIG Performance Space on May 19.

“3,” which was released at the end of April, pays homage to the drum patterns of traditional Senegalese folk songs. Stern describes what emerges as a new repertoire of cross-pollinated ideas with reverence to jazz, blues, Africa and folk music of today’s diaspora.

Ba, a bassist of Senegalese origin, has been an invaluable source of inspiration and information about Senegalese music for Stern. So has Faye, who was born and raised in Senegal and comes from a long line of drummers.

“I also travel all around Africa regularly,” Stern explains. “I have many teachers there.”

A musician who began taking piano lessons at the age of six and guitar lessons by the age of 11, Stern formed her own acting company as a teenager and performed in front of sold-out European crowds. In 1977, she moved to the U.S. to study film scoring but once in the states decided to focus on music. She settled in New York City in 1981 and has called it home ever since.

Stern has been awarded the Gibson Guitar Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year five consecutive times. In March, she was selected as an official showcase performer at South by Southwest, an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences in Austin, Texas.