Review: Leni Stern, Sabani

Leni Stern
[Leni Stern (2012)]

For the last half-dozen years, jazz guitarist Leni Stern has spent a lot of her time in West Africa, mostly Mali, seeping in the musics of the region, which has often been called the ultimate home of the blues. She’s learned to play indigenous stringed instruments, such as the n’goni ba, mixing them with her electric jazz guitar sounds. And she helped establish, and teaches at, the Ouidah International Center for Art and Music in Benin.

Since 2006, Stern’s made several albums of this blended music in collaboration with Malian musicians. Those albums, however, were more produced, using larger ensembles (including saxophones) and overdubs. With Sabani, Stern steps back, working lean and mostly acoustic (with a bit of electric guitar) as a trio: herself; Haruna Samake on other strings (camela n’goni) and percussion (karignan); and percussionist Mamadou Kone, AKA “Prince,” who provides the pulse with calabash, talking drum, and shakers.

An apt comparison for American ears would be Joni Mitchell at her most “out-there” moments on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, both for the African influences and the mystical breeze lifting the songs. “Papillon” tells the story of a friend of Stern’s who is mysteriously surrounded by butterflies; there’s “Sorcerer,” with its lyrics about dancing trees in the forest at night; and the final instrumental song, “The Cat Stole the Moon,” which is based on a Malian children’s story to explain the new moon’s absence in the sky. “Djanfa” features guest Zoumana Tareta, a renowned Malian singer and sokou player (a bowed string instrument), singing about the musicians on the disk in his native language.

Leni Stern’s new album is a worthy compatriot of the work of other Western artists who have been influence by and collaborated with Mali’s musicians, such as Corey Harris Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Robert Plant, and Taj Mahal, adding her own jazz influences and a singer-songwriter tinge.

—Jeffery R. Lindholm (Montpelier, VT)


3 comments on “Review: Leni Stern, Sabani

  1. What about Paul Simon? Was he not one of the first of his (my) generation to explore the commonalities between the cultures of Africa and America? Most of the people you listed followed after him.

    • This is a good point, but Jeff did specify Malian artists – most of Paul Simon’s African influence on Graceland came from South Africa. I can’t speak for Jeff, but I’d also say that Simon assimilated world music into American popular music, rather than immersing himself in and composing in the traditional forms of other cultures.

  2. Good point above on reviewer Jeff’s noting some of this hemisphere’s many musicians influenced by Mali’s regionally diverse music [Bambara or Kel Tamasheqt]. Cannot let pass without noting Dee Dee Bridgewater’s 2007 Malian Odyssey “RED EARTH”
    culminating in an amazing Bambara rap by Lassy King Massassy spiraling around
    Bridgewater’s own deft inflection in earthy English on Gene McDaniel’s iconic 1960’s
    hit for Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ “Compared to What?” Also, thanks to DIRTY LINEN’s coverage of Californian multi-instrumentalist Markus James’s various projects with Malian artists, he too should be referenced here. Keep yo eye on da Sahel…

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