Leni Stern
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Leni Stern

New York City, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 1986 | INDIE

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE
Established on Jan, 1986
Band World Jazz

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"Abstractionist record shorts 6/2016"

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. - Greg Burke - Metaljazz.com


"Strings of life: Globetrotter Leni Stern's African Trio"

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.” ◀ - santa fe new mexican 3/2015


"Leni Stern: Jelell 1/14"

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


"Leni Stern: Jelell 2/14"

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. - Raul Da Gama


"Jelell Press Release 10/13"

Trans-Oceanic Afro-Jazz: Leni Stern Infuses Mbalax Rhythms and Senegalese Soul with Soaring Vocals and Jazz Guitar

Jelell! This Wolof expression means something along the lines of “Take it!” or “Grab it!” or “Seize the moment,” but, like so many of the world’s great untranslatable words, carries a richer, deeper, contextual meaning. It’s that contextual core, that powerful frame of reference, that drives this album, Leni Stern’s 20th full-length release and her deepest foray into African music yet.

On Jelell (release date: Nov. 26th), German-born Berklee-educated guitarist and n’goni player Leni Stern’s African Trio is completed by world-renowned electric bassist Mamadou Ba, a pillar of the NY African music scene and long-time musical director for Harry Belafonte, and Alioune Faye, who lives in the Bronx but comes from a large Senegalese family of musicians. Also featured on the album, which was recorded in its entirety in Dakar, Senegal, is a sabar ensemble made up of Faye’s five percussionist brothers.

The complex but seemingly effortless rhythm patterns played out by this band of brothers provides the spine of the music, a polyrhythmic foundation stone from which Stern’s elegant, jazz-infused melodic improvisations can spring. This combination makes for a beat-heavy get-up-and-move album that is simultaneously profound and utterly danceable.

The songs on Jelell are topically diverse but all carry a fundamental theme of interconnectivity and the idea that life is, at its core, similar all around the world. Families, love, hunger, thirst, and even sport are touched upon and brought to life by the driving, rollicking rhythms of the band and Stern’s authentic, heartfelt songwriting, powerful vocals, and virtuosic playing.

“Baonaan” is a traditional rain invocation from Northern Senegal, given a contemporary, guitar-driven edge in this elegant reworking. Several years ago, during a period of painful and intense drought, Stern was invited by Baaba Maal to play a concert in the region to help raise awareness to the dire situation. “People were starving because all the livestock died. The rivers dried out and there were no fish.” She learned this song, which asks the Gods to send water, and made it her own, bringing in some English lyrics and her signature intricate guitar riffs. As of recently, the rains have, in fact, returned, but the region always remains at risk for further drought.

The late-night under-the-cover sussurations of children around the world, avoiding bedtime with whispers and giggles, is sweetly brought to life in “Light Out.” “This is the first African-inspired song that I ever composed,” says Stern. It’s a favorite among her African band members, she says, who sing it to their own children when it’s time to go to bed.

“How Many Times” has an unlikely origin, with the title springing from something that boxer Mike Tyson said in his Spike Lee HBO special, for which Stern was in the live audience. Tyson reiterated a phrase from his coach and trainer, told to him after a particularly intense fight which he won after being knocked down many times: “It doesn’t matter how many times you go down, all that matters how many times you get back up.” This struck Stern as an important and powerful metaphor for life. “I just thought it was beautiful, and it left a real impression on me to see Mike Tyson say that.”

Cut to Senegal, where a traditional style of wrestling is the country’s most popular sport. Wrestlers are superstars, and during the matches themselves, they are accompanied by bands of drummers, sort of personal pep bands who provide a function that is ceremonial but crucial to the art of the sport. The Faye family, the percussionists who provide the rhythms on this record, are connected with a wrestler called Balla, one of the finest and most beloved of the wrestling champions.

Stern laughs as she tells the story of an afternoon rehearsal, where Alioune Faye kept pausing to watch Balla’s wrestling match on his phone. “Can’t you put down your phone and practice?” she asked. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t,” he replied. So she paused rehearsal indefinitely so the whole group could watch the wrestling, and she was struck by the power and intensity of the sport. Things connected, and this song was born. “You’re going to become famous in Senegal,” Mamadou Ba told Stern, “writing a song about Balla.”

Though there’s tremendous temptation to call any mixing of two genres “fusion,” that term has come to imply something light -- a little of this and a little of that -- where Stern’s music is less about fusing and more about finding deeply-rooted cross-cultural commonalities and using them as touchpoints for expansion and inspiration, be it melodic, rhythmic, or lyrical. - FlipSwitch/StoryAmp


"Fame 12/12"

Though she's married to guitar monster Mike Stern, who puts the fear and sweat in even the best axehandlers on the planet, a guy Miles Davis chose for his fierce chops and intelligence, Leni Stern has never felt the least necessity to walk in Mike's shadow and has ever been quite the eclectic, so much so that she formed her own label (LSR) in order to pursue her muse unfetteredly while simultaneously featuring other unorthodox creatives. Known for her guitar work, which can be stunning (catch Winter for an example), in 1997 Stern turned more fully to her voice as well with Black Guitar. In Smoke, No Fire, though, she combines both talents with an ingenuity that sneaks up on Ry Cooder's, Daniel Lanois', Taj Mahal's, Joseph Shabalala's, and Ali Farka Toure's.

Thre's a story to this CD. While recording it in the capital of Mali, Bamako, the city entered a period of chaos and tension, locked down and fearful. Nonetheless, the sessions went forward, and the outside unrest ratcheted up every sense of urgency and verve in the disc's music. This is underscored by the dominant presence of African instruments, including Stern's own daunting work on the n'goni (pictured on the flip side of the liner, a string instrument with a koto-ish flavor). Even more strikingly, Mike sits in on Lomeko and his solo greatly favors Leni's n'goni work. The instrumental Tou Samake then becomes almost Carnatic as Ben Holmes' trumpet dubs in a Western flavor calling to mind some of Robert Wyatt's arrangements in handling African strains, maybe a trifle of Penguin Cafe Orchesra as well.

Smoke, No Fire is a CD absorbed in art, not a second holding any commercial concerns, but the collection of songs is a statement of the vitality of a section of the world currently caught in the cross conflicts which occur whenever world capitalism shifts its devouring eyes to the exploitation of new resource centers (and John Perkins years ago wrote of Africa's real problems in international-capital underpinnings, so you might want to check his books on empyrean fevers). More, should this mode catch you, then also refer to Habib Koité & Eric Bibb's Brothers in Bamako (here) for a satiny diffusion of the region's stylings. - Mark S. Tucker


"All About Jazz 12/12"

In March, 2012, a military coup overthrew the government in the western African nation of Mali, disrupting life for the civilian population—repetitively the victims in such situations of political turmoil. Guitarist Leni Stern was living in Mali at the time of the coup, and though she could have departed the country, she decided to stay and record Smoke, No Fire amidst chaotic circumstances in the capital city of Bamako.

This record is the stark counterpart to her production of Sabani (Self Produced) from earlier in the year, which she recalls as a "happy album" done in better times. There is a definite harder edge in the delivery and significance of the vocals, with an aggressive leaning toward rap to underscore the message coming from the streets. The opening "Djarabi" finds Stern singing in a bilingual mixture of English and Bambara, the local language in which she also sings "Yiriba," and raps convincingly on "Dji Lama," where she is joined by Malian rapper Woroferela Moden. He reappears in the title track to emphasize the confusion that has captured the country. Local respected singer and griot Ami Sacko is featured alongside Stern on various vocal tracks, as well as being a vital collaborator on the recording.

There is also a gentle side to this music, which conveys optimism and reveals a yearning for peace and understanding in the instrumentals "Tou Samake" and "Frossira." Some of the production was, for obvious reasons, done outside of Bamako; "Winter" offers a bass track by Esperanza Spalding added in New York, while "Awn Te Kalo Ye" (So Far So Fast), a perfect narrative of Stern's peculiar odyssey depicted in song, comes from Senegal.

Stern is an exceptional artist, adhering steadfastly to her own sense of direction and acknowledgment of the place and people she considers significant. As a guitarist, she continues her personal endeavor of penetrating and absorbing Malian music and, though her vocals, might be in the forefront on Smoke, No Fire, the instrumentation is both sophisticated and unassuming at the same time. Stern has mastered the art of permitting her life to confront its destiny, be it in times of peace or war. For this, she just might be the bravest woman in music today.

Track Listing: Djarabi; Winter; Smoke, No Fire; Yiriba; Lomeko; Tou Samake; Awn Te Kalo Ye; Dji Lama; Behi Mounou Mounou; Frossira.

Personnel: Leni Stern: guitar,n’goni, voice; Woroferela Moden: rap, voice; Haruna Samake: camela, n’goni; Ami Sacko: voice; Mamadou Ba: bass; Alioune Faye: djembe; Kofo: talking drum; Abou Cisse: voice; Jami Sacko: backing vocals; Mamadou Kone: calabash; Ouba Sacko: n’goni, n’goni bass; Jelli Ba Diabate: doun doun; Madou Djembe: djembe; Mamadou Kone: calabash; Esperanza Spalding: bass (2); Leo Genovese: accordion, synthesizer; Mike Stern: guitar solo (5); Ben Holmes: trumpet; Karen Waltuch: viola. - James Nadal


"Afropop 11/12"

New York based guitarist and singer/songwriter Leni Stern has spent years making musical pilgrimages to West Africa, especially Mali, and bringing back intriguing recordings of her songs, played with amazing traditional musicians she has befriended. And beguiled, with her soft, clear singing voice, sweet and stinging electric guitar playing and gentle wit. This new collection was completed in Mali this year, just as the political situation in Bamako was being transformed in the midst of a coup and a rebellion to the north. The poignant title song here—which speaks of curfews and fear, and features a young man rapping in Bambara—only hints at the darkness that emerged in Mali last spring. It now appears that the wonderful Bamako ambiance Mali music adventurers like Stern—and, I dare say, myself—have savored for decades, has been swept away for the foreseeable future.

But back to music. Stern has become adept and interweaving English and Bambara vocals in her vocals. So when the her English verse shifts to a choral Bambara refrain, we barely notice, lost as we are in an ambling, wassoulou-tinged groove of the opener, “Djarabi (My Love)”—not the Mande classic, Stern’s own song. The core of this album is a well-developed musical friendship between Stern and Harouna Samake, whose sterling kamele n’goni (young man’s harp) has graced recordings and performances by wassoulou diva Sali Sidibe, and, more recently, Mali music icon Salif Keita. Stern and Samake have a sound. It can be deep and discursive, as on “Yiribi (tall tree)” with its rubato intro revealing a hint of a growl in Stern’s songbird voice. It can be lyrical and grooving as on the instrumental “Tou Samake,” on which we hear Samake’s remarkable command of his instrument—he is about the best I’ve heard—more clearly than on any Malian recording so far.

This is a seductive set of songs. On the chugging “Lomeko (Find me an angel),” men do most of the singing in a folksy ensemble sound that sets up an unusually jazzy and technical guitar solo. The feeling is playful, jazz rubbing up against African folk like old friends. On “Dji Lama (water),” Stern raps and riffs before singing sultrily in a minor key. A female chorus coils around another Stern/Samake groove, this one like an undulating waltz. Samake’s solo here is short, but sublime. The set ends on a folksy note with another instrumental, “Frossira (Country Road)” in which a violin hovers as Stern’s guitar tangles with Samake’s kamele n’ngoni, which shifts between rhythmic snap and melodious flourish. This ambling multi-cultural tumble feels like the old Bamako, a place of easy exchanges and chance-taking. And it leaves one with a sense of hope that is truly welcome, even if unwarranted. - Banning Eyre


"MetalJazz.com 8/11"

Leni Stern, "Sabani" (LSR). Longtime survivors often show a combination of depth and lightness -- depth because they've seen the bottom, and lightness because the earth can't hold them anymore. Stern's journey into African music reaches a point of peaceful knowledge with this mostly acoustic set, performed with a few African musicians in Mali. The rhythms are subtly complex, the songwriting clean, as Stern ponders and loves. And dances. - Greg Burk


"All About Jazz 8/11"

Stern's Most Uplifting, Optimistic Album in Years, as 'Sabani' Suggests an African Dreamscape

Stripped Down Trio Album Showcases Guitar, N'goni Ba, Camela N'goni, Calabash and Tama—Stern Thrilled with Result: “I Don't Know Why I Waited So Long to Record Like This"

Recorded and Mixed in Bamako, Mali at Salif Keita's Mouffou Studio

Acclaimed Global Music artist Leni Stern delivers her most uplifting and optimistic album in years with the September release of 'Sabani.' The stripped down African trio album was recorded and mixed at Salif Keita's Mouffou Studios in Bamako, Mali, and its austere beauty, at times, evokes such powerful U2 ballads such as “One" and “Red Hill Mining Town."

'Sabani' means 'three' in Bambara, and all of the tracks on the album are trio compositions - a stark departure from the multi-instrumental African/Indian/Global orchestrations Stern has delivered as her sound evolved on recent albums 'Sa Belle Belle Ba,' 'Africa,' 'Spirit in the Water,' 'Alu Maye' and others. Perhaps it's the simplicity of the arrangements that has allowed Stern to find such a mystical quality to the music. Stern is thrilled with the result: “I don't know why I waited so long to record like this."

'Sabani' features Stern on electric guitar, vocals and n'goni ba, Haruna Samake on camela n'goni, and Africa's Mamadou Kone dit Prince ('MK Called Prince') on calabash and tama. Highlights include the album's gypsy-inspired centerpiece 'Like A Thief,' and the powerful track 'Still Bleeding,' the first song Stern has ever written on n'goni ba. See song notes, below.

Select song notes—by Leni Stern:

“like a thief" was inspired by the flamenco singer diego el cigalla and his record “corren tiempos de alegria." when i was a little kid and wouldn't behave my grandmother used to tell me that i had fallen off the back of a horse when the gypsies came through town. she had taken me in out of the goodness of her heart, but if i didn't start behaving myself, she would give me back to them. i don't know if it's true that my great grandmother ran off with a chimney sweeper, a gypsy, and that i have a little gypsy in me, but i have always loved their music.

“the cat stole the moon"—that's what little kids in mali shout on new moon nights.and you have to give them candy or coins for letting you know.

“an saba" means the three of us or just us three. that's what haruna said when i told him of my idea to make a trio cd. we have spent so much time just playing like this. it's effortless for us and full of memories. of places we have been together, of adventures we've had. i don't why i waited so long to record like this.

“djanfa" means betrayed. this song features zoumana tareta, the great malien soukou player and singer. he's been around longer than the rest of us, so it is his job to share some of his wisdom when we are together. those are the times when i feel most privileged to be part of an african community. i remember the time he told abou, our engineer that he was too skinny and he had to eat more. he talked about the time when he didn't have anything to eat for days. how he made it through those hard times. we all sat and listened like children when he got going that way. in this song he sings about all of us, haruna, prince, abou and me. it's a real special honor.

“papillon"—when my friend adam's wife got sick, they talked about what they would like to be, if it was true that there is reincarnation and we all have more than one life to live.she said she would like to be a butterfly. i met adam in a little cafe on the lower east side, to see how he was doing and i swear when we stepped outside i almost collided with a few butterflies that came towards us and started flying around adam. it happens a lot he says.

More about the musicians and the evolution of the project—by Leni Stern:

I have been playing the n'goni since i first came to Mali in 2006 to perform at The Festival in the Dsert. I met Bassekou Kouyate there, Mali's most famous n'goni player. He and his whole family have been teaching me ever since. Last September we performed together at the presidential palace to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence. 50 years? n'gonies. In the 50 n'goni orchestra, I sat next to the n'goni ba, the instrument of Basskou's father, played by his bother Fousseni. I fell in love with it's warm, soft sound. The n'goni ba is tuned to C, a forth below the jelly n'goni in F hat I had played so far. 'Still Bleeding' is the first song I composed on this instrument.

Haruna Samake was born in a small village near Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. His father was the imam and all the villagers came to pray in his mosque, at least once a week. The camela n'goni is the instrument of the hunters. Most hunters in West Africa are also doctors. By observing the animals they track, they learn about the plants in the forest. They see an injured dear rub his leg against a particular tree and cut the - Seth Cohen


"Blogcritics 8/2010"

I guess the first time I really got interested in the fusion of the pop music aesthetic with world music was back in the eighties when Paul Simon resurrected himself with his award winning Graceland album. Certainly there had been world music influences in some of Simon's earlier music, "Mother and Child Reunion" for example, but the new album suggested a commitment beyond a single here and there. Collaborating with musical groups like Ladyship Black Mambazo, and Los Lobos; he combined multicultural rhythms with his trademark poetic lyrics to produce gems like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints." The Rhythm of the Saints which followed never had the same success, but it did show a similar cultural outreach.

There is a lot about Leni Stern's new CD Sa Belle Belle Ba that reminds me of Simon's landmark album. She comes to world music with a successful resume as a jazz guitarist and infuses track after track with swinging guitar riffs and mellow highlights. Listen to the twanging guitar punctuating the vocal on "Nan Jeya" and the electrical improvisation on "Born Bad." There is also some nice improvisation on the kora (a 21 string West African lute like instrument) by Yakouba Sissoko in the Arabic flavored "Yakhai Bi Khali" and the lilting "Souma Chamon." She makes it her business to collaborate with authentic voices. Guest musicians include Haruna Samake, Ami Sacko, Bouba Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate, and Zoumana Tareta. They join Stern in chorus and with individual solo work, most often providing an African counterpoint to her English lyrics. For example listen to the choral background to the bluesy "Smoke's Risin'." It is unfortunate that individual solo work isn't always credited in the album notes.

Her English lyrics range from the deceptive simplicity of "Souma Chamon" and "Sera" to the poetic eloquence of "Now I Close My Heart" that begs comparison with Simon at his best. There is a prayer like quality to her paean to Africa the motherland of humanity, "Farafina Cadi." She combines English lyrics with African and Arabic lyrics, in a sense illustrating the need to go beyond linguistic barriers and find the humanity that fills us all. In the same way her fusion of musical genres symbolizes her desire for cultural fusion. So, for example, there is the combination of traditional African chants with rap on the title song, "Sa Belle Belle Ba." She melds jazzy blues and a swinging electric guitar solo to a backdrop of African rhythms in "Born Bad."


Read more: http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-leni-stern-sa-belle/#ixzz12vVONudQ - Jack Goodstein


"Itunes 8/10"

The bewitching grooves of singer/guitarist Leni Stern’s Sa Belle Belle Ba brilliantly fuse Western and African musical idioms. Building upon the breakthroughs on her acclaimed 2007 release Africa, Stern once again taps into the rich culture of Mali in tandem with such master musicians as oud player Brahim Fribgane and vocalist Ami Sacko. Sweltering rhythms and incantatory lyrics give “Babakar,” “Smoke’s Risin’” and “Born Bad” an otherworldly power. Echoes of American funk and blues can be heard in the serpentine flow of “Nan Jeya” and the title track. The caressing, lullaby-like “Sera” and the string-draped ballad “Now I Close My Heart” work equally well in a softer strain. Stern’s acoustic and electric-guitar work displays their trademark precision and grace on the slow-boiling “Souma Chamon,” among other numbers. From the chant-like “Madoumba” to the Middle Eastern-accented “Yakhal Bi Khali,” Stern and her collaborators embrace a wide swath of sonic terrain. The spell-casting “Namu” makes the mystical content of the album’s songs clear. - Itunes Editorial Staff


"New Music Weekly 9/2010"


Leni Stern has earned the most glowing reviews of her eclectic career with her Global ensemble project, ‘Sa Belle Belle Ba’. iTunes Editorial raved about the album’s “bewitching grooves,” “sweltering rhythms” and “incantatory lyrics”. Other recent press coverage has described Stern as “among the most adventurous musicians of her generation,” and has noted, “Her CD is an eclectic collection of fused musical styles and genres.” By showcasing multiple guest performers, highlighting indigenous instruments from Africa and elsewhere, and allowing the collaborative process to shine, Stern has delivered a complex, hard-hitting, funky, international rocker.



On September 15th, in an extraordinary example of the respect Stern has earned in Africa, she will perform at the Presidential Palace in Bamako Mali, playing n'goni with Bassekou Kouyate's n'goni orchestra.



Upcoming U.S. Tour dates will include 9/25 at the Town Crier in Pawling, NY; 9/26 at Rose Live Music in Brooklyn; 10/7 at Coda in San Francisco; 10/9 at Blue Whale in Los Angeles. More dates will be announced soon. - New Music Weekly


"All About Jazz 12/2007"

Songwriter and guitarist Leni Stern’s Africa (LSR, 2007) marks a significant new chapter in a career marked by bold changes. Her fearlessness as an independent traveler, and her endless curiosity about the workings of the world which surrounds her, are reflected in her music. Her lyrics are tender, poetic and, above all, truthful.

As a singer, she has variously been described as a combination of Marlene Dietrich with the phrasing of Billie Holiday, and as a cross between Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Five consecutive Gibson Best Female Guitarist Awards are testimony to her distinctive playing style, elegant and emotive, and almost an extension of her voice.

After abandoning a thriving career in the theater, Stern left her native Germany and made her way to Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study film scoring, and eventually found herself, to her surprise, leading a band boasting guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Paul Motian. Over the years musicians such as guitarist John McLaughlin, tablaist Zakir Hussain, saxophonist Michael Brecker, violinist Jenny Scheinman, drummer Dennis Chambers, percussionist Don Alias and songwriter/guitarist Larry John McNally have collaborated on her projects.

And just when you think you’ve got her pegged, she can be found rubbing shoulders and trading licks with giants of the African stage such as Salif Keita and Babaa Maal. Leni Stern, it is safe to say, is a woman with more than one string to her bow.

All About Jazz: Leni, where did you grow up?

Leni Stern: I was born in Germany and I grew up in Munich.

AAJ: What place did music have in you house in Munich when you were growing up?

LS: It was very, very important. My parents weren’t musicians themselves but they were music lovers. My mother would have liked to be a singer but my grandfather didn’t think that was a decent profession [laughs]. He forced her to study, so I guess in a sense I’m living her dream because I became a musician.

I have to say that in Europe music is a bigger part of education, I think, than in America, so there was a lot of music in school too. In our house there was a lot of music. I had one brother who was a drummer, one that still is a piano player, and my sister writes poetry; it was really very, very, present. The rest of them made it a hobby but my brother and I made it our life.

AAJ: And yet you followed a path into the theater; did that mean, at that stage, that you had no ambition for a musical career or did you consider it an unreachable dream?

LS: It was just a problem of making money as a female electric guitarist, because then nobody wanted to hire you. I do love acting and still love it and in the theater I had the possibility to do music hands-on because you always needed music there. I was the so-called musical director of the whole thing and I got to have a band, which was the theater band.

”LeniAAJ: The theater company which you started as a teenager has been described as radical; in what way was it radical?

It was radical because it was political, in content and in form. It was very influenced by the American Living Theater. I had studied with Marcel Marceau in Paris. It was performance art and music had a huge place in it, a very big place in it.

AAJ: You gave up an already successful theatrical career to study film scoring at Berklee; what prompted that divorce from the theater and your more serious courtship of music?

LS: I couldn’t do both. You find a lot of actors who have a music career on the side and I didn’t really want that because my first love was music and my second love was the theater. I never meant to give up acting but it was just so hard to do everything, there weren’t enough hours in the day. My acting jobs were in Europe and my musical jobs were here so running back and forth after a while just got to be too much.

So I went to Berklee to study film scoring and composition because you couldn’t really study that in Munich. I had made a lot of money in a TV show so I could afford to take some time off. I was a jazz guitarist, a blues guitarist and I really wanted to go where it all came from, because I always knew that you had to be in the place and live with the people, and inhale the vibes to really get a sense of it. And here is where I met [guitarist Mike] Mr. Stern. For a while I traveled back and forth, but then I settled here in New York.

AAJ: How useful a discipline was film scoring for you?

LS: It’s a great way to learn how to compose because you have to write music which has emotional content and tells a story. You know, you get a lot of money to do music which is not the norm in the music business.

AAJ: So do you think film scoring was good preparation for your development as a songwriter later on?

LS: Yes, it was. In film school you get asked to provide a certain emotion. Usually they come to you when something isn’t working, when a love scene isn’t romantic enough or an action scene isn’t - Ian Patterson


"Jazziz Magazine - 7/07"

Folk, rock, and pop elements have variously informed Leni Stern's always-interesting work as a guitarist and composer for practically 20 years, since she vacated the strictly-jazz terrain of her first few solo releases, including 1985 debut album "Clairvoyant." As an artist, she has become practically unclassifiable. To everyone but the bean counters, that's a strength.
For "Alu Maye (Have You Heard)", and EP recorded at Salif Keita's studios in Mali, Stern effectively allies her throaty vocals and thoughtful six-string playing with the hypnotic rhythms, percussive textures, and singsong choruses of West African music. The kaleidoscopic flickering of multiple-stringed instruments makes an entirely natural sonic backdrop for the leader.
In addition to documenting Stern's affinity for African music, "Alu Maye" serves as a tribute to two friends and collaborators. Michael Brecker, on one of his final recordings, spins his tenor around and through the gently undulating grooves of "Ousmane," and he offers a slinky line in unison with the melody of the airy ballad "Saya." The latter tune was penned in memory of percussionist Don Alias, whose death Stern learned about during rehearsals for the album.
The inclusion of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" would be jarring on any other album nominally classified as jazz. Not here. Stern's singing of the melody is affecting, as are the laidback acoustic picking and gorgeous background vocals, elements that are also integral to the success of the jaunty Dylan-referenced opener, "My Name is Oumou." - Philip Booth


"Downbeat Magazine 1/2008"

Leni Stern has had a remarkable journey. Known for years as a talented guitarist who held down a weekly gig at New York's 55 Bar, Stern today is as different from that persona as night and day …Stern has shed multiple skins while taking her music – and her guitar playing – to new, daunting heights. A cancer survivor, Stern has always brought a sense of seeking and solace to her music. Africa is the culmination of those desires. She recorded the album in Mali with a stellar cast of local musicians. It is life affirming and questioning, an accomplished amalgam of native musicians performing African rhythms and tableaus, Stern's vocals and evocative guitar. The integration between Stern's music and the Mali musicians' mastery is nearly seamless. Stern is accompanied on vocals by Ami Sacko, Yagar Damba, Mah Soumano and Dally Kouyate, who bring serenity to the music. Stern also laces Africa with sadness, not only from the tributes to Michael Brecker and Don Alias, but in its ability to capture the enormity of Africa's plight. Throughout it all, Stern fingerpicks gorgeous, subtle guitar solos that blur the lines between blues, jazz and African sounds. DOWNBEAT Magazine, 1/08,


- Ken Micallef


"The Washington Post, 2/2008"

A SPIRITUAL CURRENT always powers Leni Stern's recordings, especially on "Africa," an album inspired by her immersion in Malian and Senegalese culture. Clearly the German-born, New York-based singer-songwriter-guitarist has found another home. Recorded mostly at singer Salif Keita's studio in Bamako, Mali, "Africa" is a cross-cultural prayer meeting of sorts. The album has its share of purely insinuating charms; Stern's shimmering guitar work and an indigenous brew of vocal harmonies, blues bends and percolating beats see to that. But she isn't merely interested in having listeners succumb to the polyrhythmic weaves that distinguish "Alu Maye (Have You Seen)" and other tracks. Much of the music is deeply soulful, a quality underscored by Malian vocalist Ami Sacko, whose robust contralto stands in sharp contrast to Stern's plaintive soprano, and by lyrics addressing sociopolitical nightmares -- the pleading "Childsoldier," for example -- and personal loss. The late saxophonist Michael Brecker, who appears on "Africa," inspires the elegiac ballad "1000 Stars," while the haunting "Saya (Farewell)" is dedicated to percussionist Don Alias, who died in 2006. Because Stern doesn't collaborate with Sacko and fellow 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. - MIKE JOYCE


"Los Angeles Times 12/2007"

"Guitarist, singer and songwriter Leni Stern's geographic journey yields spiritual fruit"

Staging benefit concerts and adopting babies are great, but musician Leni Stern has her own way of spreading the vibration of Africa: She has become an African. The people of Mali have even given the Bavarian-born guitarist and singer-songwriter a little piece of land, because they want her to stay. She's lived there about half-time for more than two years, and she wants everybody to know she's not suffering.

"We all come from Africa; it's the birthplace of humankind," Stern says by phone from the New York City apartment she shares with her husband, guitarist Michael Stern. "When you go there, you feel like you're coming home."

Consequently, she says, "we have a lot of things that we owe Africa, so we try to raise money, and our televisions are filled with images of terrible things.

"Get rid of malaria, for crying out loud, and get some cheap medicine out there," she adds. That's all well and good, "but we have created an impression of Africa, that it's a dangerous place filled with hardship, everybody there is miserable and crying all the time. You have to be vaccinated to the max, you can't drink the water, and you better not step on the ground. Well, you know what? None of that is true.

"It doesn't mean that we have to stop sending money for medicine," she says, "but Africa is beautiful. Africa is fascinating. You have never been among a nicer people. They really make it your quest that you should be happy. The food -- oh my God, the only thing that's a disaster is that I keep gaining pounds."

Stern allied herself with another white person in her new home. Only this one happened to be black.

That would be the renegade Afro-pop singer Salif Keita, an African albino. The blond Stern, who plays at Cafe Metropol downtown tonight, met Keita in Mali while using his studio and soon found herself splitting time between her own music -- influenced by the many months she's spent among Mali's Tuareg tribe -- and Keita's band.

In October, when Stern played on Keita's recording of U2's "One," the odd juxtaposition looked like an alliance of exiles.

Stern left a German acting career in 1977 to become a jazz fusion player in the U.S., later leaving fusion too (and America, really). Keita, born into the aristocracy, bucked tradition to become a lowly musician.

Malians aren't sure how to regard Keita. "They all say he's a sorcerer and has special powers, because they have this belief that albinos are different," Stern says. "And they act around him with a mixture of devotion and hatred. It's a strange situation I have gotten myself into."

It's not the first time. Stern has traveled to such disparate destinations as India, Kenya and New Orleans -- not just as a tourist, but also as a seeker who wanted to steep herself in the local musical cultures, each of which has influenced her own work.

Asked about the source of her wandering spirit, Stern wonders if a childhood admonition didn't contain some truth. "Whenever I was misbehaving, my grandmother used to say, 'Young lady, when the Gypsies ran through town, out of the kindness of my heart I took you into the house. If you don't stop, I will give you back to them!' "

Stern's Malian residencies have run the longest of her post-New York affiliations. She's been living among the Tuareg, whose nomadic ways, following their camels, sheep and goats as they graze, have butted up against the ever tighter restrictions of modern sprawl. She has learned to play North African instruments such as the skin-stretched n'goni (guitar or banjo) and the pole-necked guimbri, a kind of bass.

Most important to Stern, she's made friends. There's smiling Ami Sacko, the woman whose warm, sliding incantation, rather than Stern's intimate, vibrating soprano, is the first voice heard on Stern's new album, "Africa." There's Bassekou Kouyate, Sacko's husband, whom Stern describes as the only musician his peers allow to break harmonic rules with his aggressive, full-toned n'goni plucking. There's Keita, challenger of convention, who enjoys offsetting his own distinctive onstage image with a band that may include a white woman or a dwarf.

The interpersonal roots add a lot to the richness of Stern's "Africa," which sounds like anything but the standard cut-and-paste "world" collab. The feel is light -- in the auditory, emotional and even visual senses -- but serious observations on genocide ("Childsoldier") and drought ("Aman Iman") drift through like dust. And spirits hover, as two of Stern's old friends, saxist Michael Brecker (who played on the album) and percussionist Don Alias, were alive when she started recording "Africa" about two years ago but not when she finished.

Stern has wrought a work of variety and complexity that could nevertheless be mistaken for background music because of its surface beauty.

It requires little concentration, though, to reveal th - Greg Burk


"Spinner 12/07"

"Leni Stern Promotes a Give-and-Take Relationship With African Music"

Like many musicians these days, Leni Stern is looking for some innovative marketing and distribution avenues for her latest album. But it's not the digital frontiers that she is exploring with her newest scheme. Quite the opposite: She's just struck a deal for a campaign centering on selling the album in little stalls throughout Africa. On cassette.

It's only right, the Munich, Germany-born guitarist says. Mali is where most of the music on the album, simply titled 'Africa,' was made. And while that's hardly unique these days, with an increasingly large stream of American and European musicians having made their way to the African continent for recording projects of late, she thinks not enough of the results have been given a presence in the lands of their origin.

"Most people come to Africa and make the music and then take it back to France or America or wherever," Stern says. "They never take it back. I want to go back and take all these little colored cassettes. I signed a deal to make sure they get sold in market stalls all over Africa. I'm going to have a big concert promoting the cassette, do the African TV shows, all the things you do with a new record."

With her music released by her own company, Leni Stern Recordings, she can do whatever she wants, and her approach is as fluid and personal as the playing that marks her music throughout nearly 25 years in which she's earned acclaim both as an instrumentalist and, in recent years, as a singer-songwriter, as well. So, there her album will be, right alongside tapes and CDs (pirated in many cases, of course) by such regional leaders as Salif Keita, the late Ali Farka Toure and, from neighboring Senegal, Baaba Maal, not to mention such international icons/staples as Bob Marley. It's not so much that she thinks this is an economically fertile territory for her but something more meaningful to her. In some respects, it's a way to thank and recognize the local musicians with whom she collaborated on this album's weaving of her individualistic styles with African forms and sounds. One event on this trip is a concert celebrating the release of an album by Ami Sacko, a featured vocalist on Stern's album and the wife of Bassekou Kouyate, whose plucked ngoni playing is also highlighted on 'Africa.'

"Her album is being released, and I played guitar and sang on it," Stern says. "I'm going to be in her video and play at the concert for her. And I want to bring my record for everybody. African artists often never see the CDs they play on. I want them to see their names in print on the CD."

Stern knows that as a very blond, very white woman with a German accent and roots in instrumental jazz she may be a bit of an odd presence on the African promotional circuit. "It's not a piece of cake to walk into there as a blond girl playing guitar," she says with the easy, lively laugh that is a continuous presence in her rapid-fire conversation. "I am the shock of the century!"

It's not a new feeling to her -- she notes that even playing blues and jazz, as a German, she can "feel slightly like an impostor. But she says in her first visits to Africa in past years she was put at ease. "They asked me what I do and I say, 'I'm an electric guitarist and sing songs,' and they said, 'You're a griot!' "

And the local support system has been quite strong. Baaba Maal even had Stern join him onstage last year in a concert celebrating the end of the Ramadan holy month observance. "They want to make a point, that we are all citizens of the world," she says. "Baba has the phrase "Friends of Africa." He speaks about it on TV, says to stop blaming the white folks for what their parents did."

She's also thrilled to be part of the expanding network of American and European artists working in Africa. She notes her friendship with jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose recent 'Red Earth' album (the subject of an earlier Around the World column) was also recorded in Mali. So, undaunted, Stern is planning to play two Ramadan concerts this spring, one with Maal and one with Keita, and expects to make Africa a regular destination on her travel itinerary.

"My husband [New York jazz guitarist Mike Stern] last weekend flew to Italy for a gig, and I can fly to Dakar," she says. "Really, just the same distance and no harder to do. Promoters say you shouldn't do tours there because you don't make any money. But of course. I make a record and have an independent company, so it's easy for me to move the way the times are moving and do what I want. I can make videos in Africa and put them up on YouTube."

Meanwhile, music is not the only thing she's taking back to Africa. "I'm working with the organization Eyes on Africa," she says. "We've brought hundreds of eyeglasses to old people. I have bad eyes, so I have all these glasses. You see a lot of suffering and you can't help everybody. But helping Tuareg goat - Steve Hochman


"Washington Post - 2006"

Friday, June 9, 2006

LENI STERN "Love Comes Quietly" LSR

LATE LAST YEAR singer-songwriter and guitarist Leni Stern released a
four-song EP called "10,000 Butterflies" that pointed at intriguing things
on the horizon. Now comes the payoff: a new CD featuring those tracks and
nine others that will only enhance Stern's reputation for creating music
that radiates a haunting power and beauty.

These days it's impossible to neatly sum up Stern's sound. Elements of folk,
pop, jazz, soul and funk clearly inspire her, along with an increasingly
strong current of world beat influences. On "Love Comes Quietly," a
collection of songs and instrumentals, Stern embraces everything from Motown
grooves to Indian modes, and yet there's nothing that sounds fashionably
eclectic or the least bit showy. Instead, a chamber-like intimacy often
prevails, a quality enhanced by a series of imaginatively woven arrangements
featuring Stern's yearning voice, poetic imagery, liquid guitar lines and
the nimble support of bassist James Genus, slide guitarist Stephen Bruton,
violinist Ernesto Villa-Lobos and others. A sense of wonder and hope marks
some of the ballads -- the album's title cut and "Have Faith in Me," for
starters. But that doesn't mean that Stern's songwriting lacks a sharp,
ironic edge. Just listen to "Beauty Queen," a perceptive vignette about
Manhattan street life, or "10,000 Butterflies," the album's foreboding
highlight, or "The Road to Hell," which sounds like something Rickie Lee
Jones and guitarist Bill Frisell might have concocted. In the end, though,
it's hard to imagine anyone but Stern pulling all of this together with as
much charm and conviction.


-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Wednesday at Blues Alley.
- Mike Joyce


"LA Weekly - 2006"

It's Personal
Written by GREG BURK
All over the world, Leni Stern is the instrument

Photo by Ebet Roberts
Learning, learning. Leni Stern wants to know and grow and hoe that row. Her thirst has pulled her all over Africa, India and Asia to absorb the rhythms, the scales, the feelings into her voice and her electric guitar, to make herself into that universal translator in the pink capris. In a way, she’s learned to learn.

“I was always a bad student,” says Stern, brow knit and lips pursed as if remembering rapped knuckles in Catholic school back in her native Bavaria. “I have a really emotional connection with music that makes me hard to teach. Because it’s . . .” She lets go of a laugh, high and piercing. “It’s personal!”

Personal, yeah, but Stern didn’t shut herself up in a cave to plumb her soul; she kicked open all the doors. It seems she can be Leni only by plugging in the many natural connectors that stick out of her, much like her hair — always going in some stray direction. In chemistry, they call that polyvalent bonding. New molecules form every day.

“Wherever you are, the place makes the music sound different,” she thinks. “Because you are the instrument.”

Stern, who’s known mainly as a jazz artist, has reconstituted herself in amazing ways over the past decade. The process has had much to do with breast cancer — surviving it, loving others who did not survive, recognizing that, hey, we’ve got things to do here. Friends in Nepal said confronting her own demise was a blessing.

“They told me, ‘Now you get free of the feel of death. And should you survive, you’ll be a much happier person.’ ”

Having gotten hitched to American fusion-guitar prince Mike Stern after a rather high-profile career on the German stage, the former Magdalena (Leni) Thora earned her oats through most of the ’80s and ’90s stirring up atmospheric, sometimes funky Strat sounds with the likes of Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. Then, spinning outward from her collision with mortality, she rediscovered her voice (literally), adding vocals to her tool kit. “Things need to be spoken about,” she says, “to be in the consciousness of everybody.” Anyway, she ain’t the silent type.

Different thoughts emerged, borne by Stern’s delicately teetering vocal melodies, which cling in the head like burrs, but not as scratchy. There were heart-wringing words of hope after an Italian terrorist explosion, flowing within the extended orchestration of “I See Your Face” (2000’s Kindness of Strangers). There were the polar expressions of “Love Everyone” and “Where Is God?” (2002’s Finally the Rain Has Come). There was a trembling flashback to a former addiction on “Dancin’ With the Devil” (2004’s When Evening Falls). When she sings and when she cuts her guitar loose on untracked mountainsides, the distinction between art and artist gets lost. Music isn’t what she does, it’s what she is.

Which has a lot to do with where she’s been. Asked to draw some lines between her music and her travels, Stern lists a bunch of raga-based songs, and names compositions that came directly out of her knuckles being gently rapped — in Naga, India; in Cambodia and Thailand; among the Samburu tribe of Kenya; and among the Tuareg tribe of West Africa. She picks up languages pretty easily, but the music, she says, is like learning to walk again. Exhilarating effort.

Stern’s insinuating new Love Comes Quietly, the most varied album she’s ever done, wafts a pronounced African aroma amid the sensually inflected strains of her guitar. A hesitation beat that might remind you of its Jamaican descendants prods “10,000 Butterflies,” a prayer in support of refugees; its almost despairing lyrics are balanced by a hopeful musical environment. The dancing casbah chorus of “Inshaallah,” about a woman, her camels, her rifle and the desert, might become your mind’s constant soundtrack. Three colorful instrumentals softly convey a day’s baking heat fading into sunset.

The city also finds its place — the urban madness of Stern’s Manhattan home shadows the menacing “Beauty Queen”; the street jugglers and magicians of “Have Faith in Me” reflect the smile that comes so easily to her face. Further abroad, the way the raga-derived “Love Comes Quietly” tiptoes in and out, sexy and insistent, you’d almost think it was a dream; Stern is at her finest here. That’s one of the things she says, actually: that in the state between waking and sleeping, we come to know ourselves.

Stern’s itinerary this year has included a collaboration in Mali with string player Bassekou Kouyate, and a Gnawa trance-music festival in Morocco. Expect new fruit from these seeds. So much of this “world” music has religious connections, though — doesn’t a German of no particular faith feel uncomfortable sometimes? A previous Moroccan lila (healing jam-ceremony) was one of the few times she can remember, “not because of anything that was actually happening, but because I knew that the partic - Greg Burk


"Guitar Player - 2006"

"Leni Stern's Desert Diary"

GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE

By Leni Stern | May 2006
The drive from Timbuktu to Essakane—site of Mali’s Festival in the Desert—takes two hours across the sand. This is no road. The Festival features mostly African artists, along with some Europeans and Americans. Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, and U2 have all appeared in the past, in the hopes of alerting the world to the plight of the region. The advancing desert is swallowing entire villages, and drought has brought the area to the brink of famine.

After nightfall, the moon shines brightly, illuminating a row of people on fabulously decorated camels. A group from Niger performs on the main stage—n’goni players, percussionists, and singers, with their faces covered, desert style. The groove reminds me of the Tuareg group Tinariwen, but they sound wilder than any recording I’ve ever heard.

A group of guitarists a few dunes away invites me to play with them, and my baritone acoustic causes a stir. It’s tuned to C, like many n’gonis (the primary instrument of Mali, and ancestor to the kora). My knowledge of the pentatonic scale and a few good blues licks are diplomatic passports here. I graduate from “tubab,” or white tourist, to “guitarist.” My heart aches when I see the old, knotted strings some of these artists play. Thankfully, I brought 100 sets to share.

I meet Malian master guitarist Habib Koite, and the country’s most famous n’goni player, Bassekou Kouyate—known as the “Prince of Strings.” We go and play in Kouyate’s tent, where his wife and singer Ami Sacko sit with the rest of the band—a string quartet of n’gonis, with singers and a percussionist playing a calabash (a wooden instrument resembling an upside-down salad bowl).

Many musicians say the blues came from West Africa, and when you play here, you know that it did. West African string players understand American guitarists like a father understands a child. Bassekou, his bass player, and Ami learned my new song, “Inshaallah”—which was written about and for the people of the desert. We performed it together under a blanket of stars.

“Inshaallah” is featured on Stern’s latest CD, Love Comes Quietly.

From Guitar Player Magazine, May 2006 - Leni Stern


"Jazziz Magazine - 8/06"

STERN FAMILY BUSINESS

In the Stern household both Leni and Mike are musicians and guitarists. Naturally, as they’ve pursued personal interests and careers, they have become profound influences on each other’s work.
“Leni brings in all this weird, cool-sounding stuff from all over the place,” says Mike, pointing to a 5-foot-high tamboura next to the bed in their East Side apartment. “I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from her.” His 'Voices'— a 2001 release with vocalists Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou, on which the guitar virtuoso reinvented his sound — was mainly composed while visiting his wife in India. In recent winters Leni has gone to India to study North Indian Hindustani Raga.
“In order to see me, he had to go there,” laughs Leni, who also recently made the transition from guitar burner to singer-songwriter. Her latest expeditions have been to Mali, where she spent quality time with n’goni player Basekou Kouyate, with whom she will collaborate on a recording in Paris this June. “I got taken into their family officially,” says Leni, who doesn’t do anything halfway. “I was given a name — Oumou Kouyate. It’s very nice.”
She continues to fuse popular songs, jazz, and world music on her current album, 'Love Comes Quietly' [LSR], which she says is “more open than the previous few, with more instrumental excursions.” “In live performance, we go on a journey with every song, but for the record, I cut apart journeys that originally belonged to one set of ideas and made a suite. As in the theater, I create stories with beginnings and ends, catharsis, and surprises,” she explains. “But I like being an instrumentalist because as I travel throughout the world, I can communicate with anybody when I play guitar — whether they speak Bambara or Hindi or Urdu. Those are actual conversations, and it's an elaborate understanding. They go much further than broken conversations in parts of each other's language trying to make each other understood.”
Meanwhile, Mike Stern maintains the continuity with his recent work on 'Who Let The Cats Out' [HeadsUp], titled for their four Oriental shorthairs. He says that in his new disc, he wanted to keep some of the influences from Richard Bona and Leni’s world-music interests, “but also burn out like I do live, playing more and keeping it loose.” The recording features Roy Hargrove on trumpet; Bona on bass and vocals; Me’Shell NdegéOcello on bass; Gregoire Maret on harmonica; and Kim Thompson and Dave Weckl on drums. “Since I’ve opened up this can of GOOD worms using voices recently, I wanted to use Bona singing without much interaction and also to get him scatting and soloing on one tune,” says Stern. “I go nuts making these records, and lately I’ve been feeling more able to let go. The handcuffs are looser. If it works, it works. Like Miles used to say, ‘Make it fit.’ He had that beautiful balance between doing what he wanted and knowing that it’s about communicating with people. I would be lucky to get half of that.”—Ted Panken, Jazziz Magazine - Lead 'Prelude' interview, 8/06
- Ted Panken - Lead 'Prelude' interview, 8/06


Discography

  • Clairvoyant (1985)
  • The Next Day (1987)
  • Secrets (1988)
  • Closer to the Light (1990)
  • Signal (1991) (w/Wayne Krantz)
  • Ten Songs (1992)
  • Like One (1993)
  • Words (1995)
  • Separate Cages (1996) (w/Wayne Krantz)
  • Black Guitar (1997)
  • Recollection (1998)
  • Kindness of Strangers (2000)
  • Finally the Rain Has Come (2002)
  • Ice Cold Water (EP) (2003)
  • When Evening Falls (2004)
  • 10,000 Butterflies (EP) (2005)
  • Love Comes Quietly (2006)
  • Alu Maye (Have You Heard) (EP) (2007)
  • Africa (2007)
  • Spirit in the Water (EP) (2009)
  • Sa Belle Belle Ba (2010)
  • Sabani (2011)
  • Smoke, No Fire (2012)
  • Jelell (2013)

Photos

Bio

Leni Stern is an unstoppable force of bottomless energy.  Her long-time fans know her from a successful jazz career that saw her touring the globe on the stage of every major festival and legendary club with bands that included some of the biggest heavyweights on the scene (Dennis Chambers, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell… to name a few). Everything changed when in 2005 Leni was first invited to perform at the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu, Mali.  It was there that she would meet Bassekou Kouyate and his wife Ami Sacko, embraced by their family and their bands, she dove headfirst into the traditions of West African guitar and later the n’goni (African banjo).  It was a natural path from jazz, a personal journey to where her playing and the genre all began, a sort of spiritual exploration coupled with devoted study and practice.

In the past 13 years Leni has worked her hardest, forging a new sound that is all her own, composing, studying, practicing, with the rhythms and tonalities of West Africa through the chops of an accomplished jazz guitarist.  It is finally, with ‘3’ (April 2018 LSR), that her most authentic voice can be experienced.  Joined by her regular NYC-based trio of Mamadou Ba and Alioune Faye, Leni’s compositions pay humble homage to the drum patterns of traditional Senegalese folk songs. What emerges is a new repertoire of cross-pollinated ideas and reverence to jazz, to blues, to Africa, to a folk music of today’s diaspora. 

It has always been a political act, a practice in strength and defiance, to be a woman and a bandleader, a female electric guitarist and composer, who puts out her own albums and manages her own career for over 25 years.  In our current political climate, it is now even more essential to celebrate the immigrant experience that brought Leni Stern to the US from Germany and her African bandmates from Senegal and to revere the diverse languages which she speaks and sings in. It is Leni’s unique goal to trace the interconnectedness of music, history, and our humanity. 

As a bandleader Leni has composed and released 21 albums to date and toured the world as both a teacher and performer, ensuring that the next generation of musicians are inspired to continue the mind-melding and cultural exchange that is so central to Leni’s musical intentions. 


Band Members