Leni Stern was jamming at a 2006 music festival in the Sahara Desert when the jazz and blues guitarist found an answer to something that had long mystified her.
“When I first played at the Festival in the Desert, I was improvising with all the musicians. They said I played African music very well. But at that point I had not studied African music. I was just playing jazz and blues. When you study jazz, everybody tells you that jazz comes from Africa, but nobody explains how it does come from Africa,” she says.
Stern was born and raised in Germany and didn’t understand the piece of American history that was left unstated when she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 1970s. (She has lived in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood since 1981.) But she saw that many of the songs she learned in Mali had pieces of familiar jazz and blues songs.
When she discussed with her new friends how their music had jumped to another continent and been absorbed into another country’s culture, she found out that “it was played by the slaves that [the United States] used to get our economy going. It’s now looked at as American music — the great American jazz players — but it comes straight from Africa. We imported slaves, and with them came the music.”
Stern now plays West African music to international acclaim, switching between the electric guitar, the n’goni (the African ancestor of the banjo), and the calabash, a percussion instrument made from a gourd. She has released three albums of this music, including 2018’s Leni Stern: 3, with bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Alioune Faye.
The Leni Stern African Trio plays on Wednesday, Dec. 4, at Gig Performance Space. Stern is joined by Faye on percussion and Jerome Harris on bass and vocals.
On a spotty cell-phone connection from the German countryside, Stern comes across as friendly, even chipper, and eager to discuss her career. Talk to her for a while about her music, and she often turns to the topics of race and social justice. She has lived in the United States for so long that she often refers to it as her country. When asked about the content of her lyrics, she gives an arch chuckle.
“I sing about love and nature and the human condition. But many of my songs are quite political. Like the song ‘Spell.’ It’s about our president.”
“Spell” appears on Leni Stern: 3. It begins with Stern playing a few fast notes on the n’goni. She slows down her tempo as Faye comes in lightly on the calabash, and Ba (a regular member of the trio who is not joining them for the Santa Fe performance) starts the steady rhythm of the electric bass. It’s a plucky tune that is also darkly haunting — enough so that it’s not especially surprising when Stern sings that she went down to the crossroads, dug a hole, and buried a picture in the sand. She sings some of the song in English but the chorus, below, is in Wolof, a language native to the present countries of Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania:
Judgment day is coming
god sees everything
judgment day is coming
lord have mercy on us
Stern writes and sings in English and sings in Wolof; Bambara, a language spoken in Mali; and in Arabic. Oud player Brahim Fribgane works with her on translating English into Arabic, and Aboubacar Sacco, an n’goni player, assists with Bambara translation. Faye helps her translate lyrics into Wolof, using his skills as a griot, or a musician and storyteller responsible for carrying his community’s oral tradition. Stern says that West African music originated as an accompaniment to storytelling and dance, with dance determining the sequence of the music. Rhythm is the most quintessential element of West African music, but playing independently of dancers allows contemporary musicians to take liberties similar to those taken with the Western classical canon.
Works by “Mozart, Mahler, Bartok — they sound like different pieces of music depending on who conducts it. It’s not all on paper,” she says.
In 2019, there are those who might take issue with a white woman leading a band of African musicians playing music from their home country, perhaps leading to accusations of cultural appropriation. But Stern says this doesn’t really happen because it’s not as though she’s casually playing African music without knowledge or respect. It’s a learned practice that requires years of intense study and mentorship, which is why her bandmates are also her teachers. Over a nearly 40-year career, Stern has made her way in a business that is not always hospitable to women as lead guitarists. As a young woman, this conservative attitude surprised her, because she thought the music industry would be a place for progressive thinking. But the hurdle of sexism only made her practice harder, she says. That learned fortitude comes in handy when the band faces discrimination while on tour.
“The most flak I get [for being a white woman playing with black musicians] is when hotels won’t give my band the keys until I show up with my Platinum Amex card and have a fit.” Threatening to complain on social media usually does the trick, but “I don’t look like someone who should be the protector of two 6-foot-tall men. That’s how crazy our society is.” ◀
▼ Leni Stern African Trio
▼ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4
▼ Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.
▼ Tickets are $22; gigsantafe.com