News Column

Worldly wise: Leni Stern's African Trio

October 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 25--Born and raised in Germany and a resident of New York City since 1981, guitarist-vocalist Leni Stern has found another home in Africa. Long fascinated by the varieties of music heard across the globe -- she's spent time in India studying that country's music -- Stern embraced the music of Mali and Senegal as part of a progression that has seen her adopting a host of musical traditions. Her appearance with bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist Alioune Faye at Gig Performance Space on Monday, Oct. 28, ahead of the release of a new recording, Jelell, will represent the purest expression of the influence that African music has had on her.

That expression began with 2004's When Evening Falls after a visit to Kenya and went full-blown in 2007 with the release of Africa. The disc was recorded at Afro-pop singer-songwriter Salif Keita's recording studio in Bamako, Mali, with a mostly American group of musicians including her husband, guitarist Mike Stern; saxophonist Michael Brecker (who died before the album was released); and drummer Will Calhoun. Contrast that African-flavored collection with 2012's Smoke, No Fire, which includes a full complement of African percussionists and string players along with Mike Stern and the bassist Esperanza Spalding. In addition to guitar, Leni Stern plays n'goni -- a lute-like string instrument with a characteristic sound -- on the recording.

Jelell, Stern said in a phone call from her Manhattan apartment, extends her African recordings into Senegal and its Mbalax tradition popularized by Youssou N'Dour. "It's putting jazz and rock back to its rhythmic roots in Africa. I've always found this kind of music plays itself. It's such a natural fit with the guitar. There are several hundred different rhythms that come from Senegal, and I'm familiar with a few of them. I've incorporated them into some new songs and done arrangements on three songs from the Senegalese tradition." Stern has been known as a composer since the late 1970s, when she came to America to study film composition at the Berklee College of Music. "It's funny that I was always known as the composer and Mike as the player. Now those roles have reversed. Mike is composing more, and I'm out performing." She admitted that there was some competitive spirit between husband and wife. "You can't avoid that. It's a natural thing when you want to excel in what you're doing, and you're both doing kind of the same thing. But he's one of the greatest guitar players alive today. So comparison can be kind of depressing."

By 1981, she'd left film scoring behind to devote her time to the guitar, playing in a number of rock and progressive bands around New York. Her first jazz band featured guitarist Bill Frisell, whom she had met while a student at Berklee, and the drummer Paul Motian. Her first several recordings were all instrumental and mostly in a jazz vein. Stern began employing her voice on the 1995 recording Words and began singing her own reflective, strangely poetic lyrics on 1997's Black Guitar. "There's something magical about the voice when it comes to communication. It connects with people. My guitar teachers always said that I should play like a voice, and I would ask, What do you mean? Until you start singing, you can't really know. It's about breath, about spacing. The voice is the most original and touching of instruments." Stern's early career as an actress before leaving Germany had afforded her some singing roles. But she wasn't comfortable doing it with her American bands until she was sure of her proficiency in English, both as a lyricist and a singer. Now, with help, she's translating traditional African lyrics into her adopted language.

Stern was also initially uncomfortable jamming with musicians in Africa. She knew so little about the music, she explained, that she couldn't make much of a contribution. So she did the only thing she knew to do. "I was just playing the blues. I thought they were playing some American song for me, so I would fit in. But the more they played, the more I realized it was an African song. There's so much similar in African music to American blues. You see where it came from. They might as well have been playing some John Lee Hooker song -- even the stories were like the stories told in American blues. Not only the [melodies] but the rhythms are very similar." She finds that the n'goni, which she plays regularly now, is a natural for that kind of music. "It really plays the blues all by itself. Really, just two strings, that's all you need. It's like the original blues instrument. When you play it, you realize that when you're playing guitar you're just imitating the songs that were originally played on the n'goni."

Stern's experience exploring global music traditions allows her to see differences as well as similarities. It also gives her insight as to how various styles can influence one another, even if their origins are half a world away. "Every music tradition has its own specific colors, its own feel and techniques. The scales and melodic influences of Indian music had an influence on [John] Coltrane. He was very influenced by the emotional and melodic aspects of the raga. The effects that African-based musicians had on rock and jazz are hard to describe, that groove is hard to describe. But we recognize it because it makes you want to dance." Her own interest in music outside the American and European sphere is the result of the attraction created by difference. "When I was in Germany, all I wanted to play was the blues. I thought that German music, that Bavarian tradition, sounded dumb. I think everybody has a desire for difference. People who have blue eyes want green eyes. People who have curly hair want straight hair. Everybody likes things that are new and fascinating."

She said that part of her drive to explore and travel resulted from her experience with breast cancer some 25 years ago. "I'm a long-term survivor. You know, you get that flash of your own mortality, and it makes you focus on what matters. I appreciate being alive so much more now. And I came to understand the power of music. Music took away the nausea of chemotherapy in a real way. That made me realize how powerful music can be. It's a healing thing. I wasn't supposed to survive. I carry the emotional scars of that, and I don't really like to talk about it. But I do want to be a beacon of hope." And where does that power in music come from? "It goes directly to the human heart. It highlights what we have in common, human emotions and the way we express them, as much as it highlights our differences."

Living part of the year in Africa allows her to become fully immersed in the culture. Not only does she take the opportunity to perform with some of West Africa's most popular musicians, she teaches elementary-school-age children part-time at the Ouidah International Center for Arts and Music in Benin. "Kids may not like math, but they'll play the drums anytime. If they draw and play music, then the arts give them a reason to be in school. We've seen studies that show that students' academics skyrocket when they're involved in the arts. I even use [music] for geography lessons. We would find these different spots in India on the map, and I would find some ragas and show them this is how they dance and sing. It's amazing how much music can enhance the curriculum."

details

--Leni Stern African Trio

--7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28

--Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.

--$20; www.gigsantafe.com

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