You gotta’ keep an open mind. That is one of the first things you learn in life, hopefully, and one of the best, certainly. Now I’ll confess to no more than a vague familiarity with Leni Stern’s music prior to this album, but a quick look at the PR blurb of a lovely white lady with two traditional African musicians, claiming to pick the banjo-like ngoni old-school-style with the homies… and the first thing I think is that there must be a decent-size dollop of BS to the PR, and some old-school pretentiousness to boot. Of course a little pretentiousness is good; that’s the stuff of creativity; so it’s just a question of proportions—and honesty—and quality. I mean, a woman playing lead guitar is rare enough—even when well done; but ngoni? I believe Leni passes most of the tests in question here with flying colors.
The title of Leni Stern’s latest self-release is “Sabani” and the premise is simple enough, straight out of a Hollywood script in fact—kick-ass jazz guitaresse goes to Africa on a mission of goodwill and instruction, then falls in love with the place and the people and ultimately the instructor becomes the instructed, by no less than Bassekou Kouyate in fact, master of the ngoni (pronounced “ngoni”) and one of Mali’s most respected musicians. Fast forward to the middle of the story and Leni is performing at Essakane’s Festival du Desert with the collected mass of Mali’s finest ngoni-pickers all on stage at once. Fast forward to the present and she’s got an album together with three of Mali’s finest musicians and is embarking on a tour to share and support. That’s not bad for a child prodigy born in Germany who made her name in New York.
This is nothing new of course. Leni has been doing her African musical journey for at least a half decade by now, with influences from a handful of other countries and travels—including India and Madagascar—for another five years before that. Her musical career looks a lot like my travel book, in fact. And all that came after various and assorted work with the likes of jazz and world masters John Mclaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Bill Frisell, Michael Brecker, and many many other top luminaries. Hers seems not so much as a musical career as a musical quest. It’s nothing if not exhilarating. But can you dance to it? That’s up to you. This could be a seated concert or SRO. It keeps you flexible.
Leni of course is an equally accomplished lyricist as well as a smooth-fingered instrumentalist. Her first composition in her new-found home illustrates this nicely. It’s called “Still Bleeding” and features a theme familiar to all, regardless of continent: “It takes some time to heal a heart…it’s easier to break it…I’m still bleeding, I’m still bleeding.” From there the lyrics only get more abtract, more obscure, more… jazzy, such as “Like A Thief, with some excellent jazz guitar: “like a thief in the night when everyone is fast asleep…loves comes on velvet feet…there’s nothing anyone can do,” or “I Was Born,” again with very nice guitar work: “I was born hungry…never felt like I could get enough.” I get the feeling that that is the main recurring theme to much of Leni’s life and work.
Other songs are more African-inspired, like the whispery and mystical Sorcerer:” “you who can talk to the spirits…when you walk through the forest late at night and someone calls your name, don’t turn around, don’t look back…you’ll never be the same.” “Djanfa” is sung by talking drum player Kofo and is entirely in African dialect, presumably Bambara, reminiscences of Salif Keita, to no less effect. The two instrumentals go both ways. “The Cat Stole the Moon” is Leni back on jazz guitar, while “An Saba” could be Ali Farka Toure’s final take of something he’d been noodling with way back when but almost forgot. Perhaps the album’s best song is a combination of all of the above, PLUS fine female backing vocals. “Papillon” begins in African dialect with female backing vocals and then segues into Leni’s finest voice—Ami Sacko instructed her btw—“walk along the same old street, nothing seems the same…you’re motionless silent somewhere deep inside…your heat’s still heavy I can see, but you my friend will always keep butterflies for company.” Once again I’m reminded of Salif Keita, but maybe that should be no surprise; the album WAS recorded in his Bamako studio after all.
I challenge you to listen to this album with closed eyes and pick the foreign white woman out of the mix. All in all the entire work is well worth the listen, but maybe the best parts are not the ngoni numbers, but Leni’s highly accomplished electric guitar mixing and mingling with the traditional Mali urban and Sahel genres. After all that really hasn’t been fully explored yet, except for Justin Adams’ work, but that’s a totally different much more rock & roll style. As Dr. Santana made clear long ago, there’s always room for some virtuoso fret-work to add spice to traditional folk styles. And he wasn’t playing banjo, either. That’s “Sabani” by Leni Stern. Check it out.