Guitarist and composer Leni Stern is an unstoppable force of energy, a beacon of inspiration and a nomadic virtuoso; spreading the beauty of her music from her native Europe to her adopted home of NYC. Her devoted 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 most revered heavyweights on the scene (Dennis Chambers, Paul Motian, and Bill Frisell... to name just a few). Everything changed for Leni in 2005 when the guitarist was 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 into the music of West Africa. For Leni, a personal journey began, a spiritual exploration coupled with devoted study and practice. Stern followed her heart to Africa and her travels have harvested many rewards, not the least of which is her brilliant new album, "3".
Over the past 13 years Leni has worked diligently, forging a new sound that is all her own; composing, studying, practicing the rhythms and tonalities of West Africa through the chops of a superlative jazz guitarist. It is on "3" that her most authentic voice can be experienced. Joined by her regular NYC-based band in a pure trio collaboration, featuring Mamadou Ba on bass and Alioune Faye on percussion and vocals, 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 with reverence to jazz, blues, and Africa, woven into the music of NYC, creating a brilliant follow up to the critically acclaimed Dakar Suite (2016).
More on the music on "3" with Leni Stern:
Side one of "3" opens with the infectious Senegalese rhythm of mbalax, and that beautiful, sophisticated, worldly, NYC guitar sound that could only belong to Leni Stern, on "Khavare" ("party"). Sabar (a Senegalese drum) parties typically start at midnight and go all night until dawn, all over the world, even here in the U.S. "Barambai", featuring guest Gil Goldstein on accordion, is the Senegalese rhythm of the baby naming ceremony. "While studying n'goni and voice in Bamako, Mali, Ami Sacko and Bassekou Kouyate's children took me to play guitar at similar ceremonies, and I felt incredibly privileged to be part of this. The baby naming and wedding ceremonies played a big part in how I learned to play African music." Leni heard the scale she used to compose "Wakhma" for the first time when checking out flamenco players from Spain (The first two chords of the song are typical of that style. There is a n'goni tuning in Mali that is used for the same scale.) "Wakhma" features Leni's intimate, plaintive vocals - a wonderful treat, as if she's letting us, just us, into her heart. Closing out side one of the album is "Calabas", featuring a stunning solo from husband, the great Mike Stern. "I have tried for years to learn a percussion instrument that would not be detrimental to my guitar playing. Finally while in Mali I discovered the calabas. It can take the place of the bass drum and the snare drum, if you look at it from a western standpoint. Now I can be part of a percussion ensemble!" On Calabas Leni sings: Coumba n'ge duggi marche, Leket chi diggu bobbi (Coumba went to the market with a calabas on her head).
Side two of "3" begins with the magnetic groove and interwoven melodies of "Spell." "I made friends with the Vodoun community and got their blessing to teach the children. The Marabou (sorcerers) of the Vodoun community told me many secret stories. One of them that I liked in particular, because it found its way into the blues, was the story of the spirits meeting at the crossroads at night. This is the reason why people should stay away from there come dusk. In the light of day the Marabou can leave gifts, gold mostly, and requests on people's behalf in a hole in the ground. I can't tell you any more about it, because I promised I would keep the secrets, but let me tell you this: there's a world behind the world we see." "Colombiano" is for Samuel Torres, and features a lovely lullaby-like melody. "We toured in South America last year and got to witness firsthand the influences of African rhythms on the music of the continent. On my return to NYC I asked my friend and composer/percussionist extraordinaire Samuel Torres, who hails from Colombia, to explain all the new rhythms I had learned. He also taught me the musical history of South America, and how the complex and bloody history of Colonialization explains the different musical influences. After Samuel left, I sat down and tried to capture all the stories as I wrote this song." "Assiko" is the Senegalese soccer/football rhythm. "I have always felt that all over the world we have much more in common that what sets us apart. Soccer was the sport of my childhood. I grew up in Munich, which made me very popular in Africa, because Munich is the current world champion in soccer." "3" closes with "Crocodile". In Senegal, similar to many states here in America like Florida, cities and villages have expanded into the wildlife habitat, encroaching on the animals whose very existence is threatened. The animals sometimes fight back! The Walla Walla people are believed to be able to speak with the crocodiles through rhythm and chants. They have done so since as far back as anyone can remember. "We start our song with the chant of the Walla Walla: diggi diggi m'baye diggi nata m'baye, atchoum nya nyama nya momin."
In our current political climate, it is now even more essential to celebrate the immigrant experience that brought Leni Stern to the U.S. from Germany and her African band mates from Senegal and to revere the diverse languages that she speaks and sings in. It is Leni's unique goal to trace the interconnectedness of music, history, and our humanity.