Mali to Manhattan
Jazz-rock guitarist/composer Leni Stern celebrates Malian music of "Sabani"
By Bliss Bowen 02/09/2012
Not a lot of dust settles on Manhattanite Leni Stern’s well-traveled shoes. Born and raised in Germany, the former actress turned guitarist/singer-songwriter has earned a reputation for creative restlessness and eclectic tastes. Those elements have shaped the edgy jazz-rock music on her 17 albums, from her early releases for Passport in the mid-1980s to the work she’s been self-releasing through her own label since the late 1990s. Her last three albums have delved into West African rhythms, but the newest, “Sabani,” scales back Stern’s compositions to focus on the interplay between Stern and an intimate circle of Malian artists.
Recorded in Salif Keita’s Mouffou Studios in Bamako, “Sabani” is not a case of voguish experimentation, despite the global fascination with Malian music over the past half decade. Listeners expecting the trance-like grooves associated with the bluesy desert rock of Malian stars like Tinariwen and Terakaft should be forewarned that they won’t hear those long, loping rhythms. “Sabani” is a spare, at times delicate exchange that shares more in common — in feel and intent, if not literal sound — with the cross-cultural elegance of last year’s “Chamber Music” from kora master Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal.
The eight brief but quietly beautiful tracks on “Sabani” were created by Stern playing guitar and ngoni (a sweet-toned, lute-like stringed instrument) and fellow musicians she befriended after being invited by UNESCO to mentor Malian studio engineers. That experience introduced Stern to the wider Malian music community, including powerhouse vocalist Ami Sacko and ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate, with whom she performed — as one of 50 ngoni players — at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Mali’s independence. Other performance opportunities with world-renowned artists such as Keita and Baaba Maal eventually followed.
“Sabani” benefits from the depth of Stern’s experiences in Africa. Rather than being a forced, high-concept project between players who are virtual strangers, it reflects the camaraderie and mutual respect of artists jamming in relaxed surroundings. Stern’s somewhat tight, husky vocals are gracefully buffed by the melodic bounce of the ngoni on songs like “Still Bleeding” and “I Was Born,” while “The Cat Stole the Moon” smoothly blends her jazz lines into a snappy Malian rhythm. “An Saba” and the moving “Djanfa” travel even further, conversing in overlapping African, jazz and blues rhythms. Stern plans to recreate those cross-cultural exchanges on her West Coast tour with talking drummer Kofo, percussionist Alioune Faye and bassist Mamadou Ba — a musical conversation that should be worth hearing. n
The Leni Stern Group plays the Blue Whale, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Ste. 301, downtown LA, 9 p.m. Tuesday. For more information, call (213) 620-0908. lenistern.com, bluewhalemusic.com