Leni Stern: Blues Soul, Jazz Mind, African Heart

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Leni Stern at Crown Guitar Festival (photo by M. Roessmann)
Leni Stern at Crown Guitar Festival (photo by M. Roessmann)

LeniStern_BluesSoulAfricanHeart_DebraDevi The blues is a universal language, and electric guitarist Leni Stern’s fluency has lured her into African adventures beyond her wildest dreams — from jamming in Timbuktu to playing Carnegie Hall with Senegalese stars. She has learned another language―Wolof―and has become a griot, a member of the West African class of traveling musical storytellers considered to be the forerunners to American country-blues singers. As Alan Lomax explained in The Land Where the Blues Began, “through the work of performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson [and] Charlie Patton, the griot tradition survived full-blown in America with hardly an interruption.”

Stern, who was born in Germany and lives in New York City, won Gibson Guitar’s Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year Award for five consecutive years and has led ensembles with such musical legends as Dennis Chambers, Bill Frisell, and Michael Brecker–but she began her storied career as a blues guitarist. And it was her blues playing that initially earned her the respect of Senegal and Mali’s finest musicians. In the process, West Africa stole her heart. Stern celebrates that love on her irresistibly upbeat new CD Jelell, recorded in Senegal.

I met Stern at the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival & Workshop at Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana, where she and her husband, jazz guitarist Mike Stern, were Artists-in-Residence. Mike, who has played with Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius, released a wonderful collaborative album with Eric Johnson called Eclectic on October 27.

Despite the couple’s heady accomplishments, Leni and Mike both exude what Buddhists call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind”–an attitude of openness and eagerness to learn. In the Main Lodge―a huge log cabin where Artists-in-Residence like the Sterns, Dweezil Zappa, John Oates, Shelby Lynne and Lee Ritenour ate and hung out with faculty and students–you were highly likely to find Mike Stern asking another guitarist to “show me how to play that!”

I was instantly captivated by Leni’s charm, friendliness and obvious deep musical knowledge when she dropped by Matt Smith’s Versatile Guitarist class to demonstrate some African rhythms on the ngoni, a West African ancestor of the American banjo banjo. As she led the class into a slightly complicated yet very funky rhythm, she encouraged each of us to break out with a little soloing over it. The blues scale worked surprisingly well!

Later, she and I sat down for a chat in the Main Lodge, and I asked how her West African adventures began.

“I was a blues musician before I became a jazz musician,” Stern began in her lilting voice, which is still tinged with a German accent. “Growing up in Munich I discovered the blues from my brother’s record collection and from Radio Free Europe. There was a big blues scene in Munich from the American soldiers stationed there – and my brother was a fanatic with his blues collection.

“It was grounds for a severe beating if you scratched his records!” Stern added, laughing.

Stern’s mother was a classical guitarist-turned-lawyer. Stern dug her mother’s acoustic guitar out of storage one day, and tried to jam with her brothers. “I had five brothers and they were all a bit out of hand,” Stern recalled, “so when I tried to play my acoustic guitar with them, no one could hear me! My mother said ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to get you an electric guitar.’ I got a Gibson ES-330 and all she said was, ‘Does it have to be red?'”

Stern chuckled, adding, “It was strawberry red! And very big!”

“The emotion in the blues is its power,” Stern mused. “You can’t teach that. To make somebody feel something, that expressiveness – if they don’t feel it, you can’t make it happen.”

“In 2006,” Stern recalled, “I was invited to play Festival in the Desert three hours outside of Timbuktu in Mali – way out in the Sahara desert. That’s how I met so many African musicians. I loved African music, and had transcribed and studied it. But when I was thrown into the middle of it for the first time, I discovered that they would play their grooves over extended vamps. Everybody jams! I wasn’t sure what to play, so I tried playing my blues licks and they said, ‘Oh, she knows Malian music!’ They were so pleased! 

”At first, they looked at me like I was pretty odd – a white woman playing electric guitar in the middle of the desert. I was the only white person in a ten-mile radius. But when I started to play the blues, they said ‘Oh good, she can play! She can play our music, thank God.’

“Initially, I protested! I said, ‘No, I don’t know your music–and I’m really eager to learn it!’ But they insisted that when I was playing the blues, I was playing their music.

“Everybody invited me to play, including Salif Keita [the albino Malian singer known as “The Golden Voice of Africa”], who later hired me for his band. I played with [famed Senegalese singer and guitarist] Baaba Maal, who brought me to play his Blues du Fleuve or “River Blues” Festival in the north of Senegal on the border of Mauritania.

At the Festival in the Desert, Stern became fast friends with ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate and his wife Ami Sacko / (dubbed “the Tina Turner of Mali” by Mojo magazine), who is not only a successful solo artist but also the lead singer of Ngoni Ba, her husband’s famous band.

“I’d go over to their tent all the time during the festival,” Stern said, “and me and Ami would go shopping―the Tuareg jewelers bring amazing things to the festival–and Ami started explaining to me the role of the griot, which is to tell the stories of the people. You put into song what’s going on during your time – like Bob Dylan, or Woody Guthrie! That’s the gig.”

In Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, Paul Oliver noted that “a [blues] singer like Lightnin’ Hopkins is very much a griot in personality, with a similar flair for spontaneous and devastating comment on the passing scene.”

“Ami learned to be a griot from her aunt, Fanta Sacko ,” Stern continued, “one of the first popular female singers in West Africa. The griots in their stories tell the history of their people, like which king conquered who, etcetera. But Ami also creates songs that tell the stories of the people of today. She sang my praise because I was her guest. She sang that I come from America and I am married to Michael Stern.

“The griot is the storyteller who introduces somebody,” Stern continued. “Since I could play, she started taking me with her to ceremonies – weddings, baby namings, funerals. I played electric guitar with a portable amp. I couldn’t play the ngoni well enough yet at that time, but I learned the songs on electric guitar and then eventually I translated the music to the ngoni, which I studied with Bassekou Kouyate.

“I learned how to be a griot from Ami. I saw how she’d send her little brother into the audience to gather information – who’s married to who, what family they come from, what the history of their family is, what special qualities each person has. The little brother would make notes on a tiny piece of paper, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and Ami would take that and write a song. The people in the audience know she’s looking for that information so they would tell the little brother: ‘say that she’s everybody’s best friend’ or ‘nobody goes hungry out of her house’ – and then Ami would include that praise in her song.

“In terms of the blues,” Stern added, “what was interesting to me was that the songs Ami taught me had that John Lee Hooker feel to them–that rhythm–and they were such dramatic tales. They felt like the blues to me. One song, for example, was the story of a man who was told by a seer that he was going to be rich, but that he mustn’t take anyone as his wife. Well, of course he does, and then he is poisoned on his wedding night. I mean, that’s just like a blues song!

The crossroads―a concept that looms large in the blues–also came up during Stern’s time in Mali, when she began teaching at a school. In the Malian tradition, Stern explained, “if you don’t initiate the teachers, no one is going to leave their children at the school. So I was taken to the lady who reads the cowry shells. She determined that the spirit that protects me is the spirit in the water; in Nigeria she’s called Yemoja. The lady gave me things to bury at the crossroads. As I was digging a hole to bury these things at sundown at the crossroads, I definitely had an eerie feeling!”

When she returned to New York, Stern found some top-notch musicians among the African immigrant community. “For years,” Stern explained, “I would record in Africa and then go to New York and put a band together with immigrants from Africa to play the music. But when I was going to start the new album, my band in New York said “We’re not good enough? You’ve got to go to Africa to record?”

“They really gave me the guilt trip!” Stern added, laughing, “so I brought my New York band back to where they’re from. It was great because we got to stay with their families. My lead drummer, Alioune Faye is a member of the famous Sing Sing Five Family Orchestra of drummers. So we got six of his brothers to come play and we then had seven brilliant percussionists from Senegal on the record.

“The album title, Jelell,” Stern noted, “is a Wolof word, and Wolof is one of the languages of Senegal that has seeped into the language of the blues over here. Jelell means “grab it,” and is part of a popular chant, jelell jelels jelell boula neche jelell, which means “go get your own!” or “grab the bull by the horns,” as we might say in English.

“With this album,” Stern added, “we hope to tour some blues festivals and invite blues musicians to sit in with our African band. Because call-and-response is equally important for both African bands and blues bands. If my drummer gets carried away with a solo and doesn’t call me, I don’t come in – that’s an African thing. Call-and-response is in every part of African music–in the drums, in the guitar, in the bass– everybody is talking and throwing musical ideas back and forth. That’s what we do in blues and jazz, too, but this is where it started.

“You know,” Stern continued, “the importation of African slaves to America had an effect rather like how the Greek slaves affected the Roman Empire. The Romans imported many Greek slaves, yet these Greek slaves came from a high culture and contributed a lot to Roman society. Similarly, the slaves who were brought to America were coming to a very young country, but they were from ancient societies with highly developed traditions. They brought ethics, philosophy, religion that had profound influences on America. The Romans were smart; they had those Greek slaves teach their children. And now our children are studying blues and jazz.

“It’s still hard today, though, for some Americans to accept what the Africans brought here, because it involves remembering that the early Americans who brought the slaves here were human rights offenders of the first degree. But as the pain and shame of slavery fades, the awareness of this contribution is increasing–and that is a wonderful thing!”

Leni Stern Official Website

Leni Stern – “The Blues Comes Home to Africa”

Leni Stern – “Jelell”

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