08/22/2013, Roots Cultural Center, Providence, RI

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Over the course of her career, Leni Stern has established her guitar and vocal  abilities in jazz, rock, and folk while more recently drawing upon studies and collaborations from her international travels to such places as Kenya, India, Mali, Madagascar and Senegal.  Having been awarded the Gibson Guitar’s Female Jazz ...

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World Music/Traditional | World Music/Contemporary


Garrett Baker

Malian Blues; Leni Stern in Providence 08/22

Earlier this spring, a call came out of the blue: There would be no sound check for veteran jazz player Leni Stern’s next performance in Mali’s capital of Bamako. What seemed like a minor, if typical glitch heralded something altogether different: The city was in lockdown. A coup had begun.

The recent upheaval in Mali left its mark on Smoke No Fire (release: November 13, 2012), the latest release from guitarist and ngoni (Malian traditional lute) player Leni Stern. Stern, long-time collaborator with some of Mali’s most creative musicians and a masterful blueswoman, found herself recording with her friends as Bamako froze in chaos and tension.

“It added some urgency to the whole album,” Stern reflects. “We were in a different state of mind when we finished it than when we started. Initially, I was happy to delve deeper into folk songs of Mali, and I wrote lyrics in English to these folks songs. Though Bamako is free, it’s still a tough time now, and you can hear it in the way we all play, which is more aggressive.”

This heat, this intensity is palpable on tracks like the brassy, funky “Behi Mounounou (Big Head)” and “Smoke No Fire,” written by Stern and her frequent collaborator, singer and griot Ami Sacko in a hotel room during the unrest. Though sparked and tempered by Mali’s music and recent trials, the album embraces sounds from Stern’s home base in New York (including a bass cameo by Esperanza Spalding) and from elsewhere in West Africa (the Senegalese trio on “So Far, So Fast”), for a sound as wide-ranging, energetic, and thoughtful as Stern herself.

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Respected as a jazz and blues guitarist, Stern has a long history of close contact and meaningful dialogue with Mali’s music and distinctive musicians, from pop icons to griots to gritty MCs. Stern played with Salif Keita’s band, touring and jamming with his talented musicians. She studied ngoni, the ancestor of the banjo, with the Kouyates, some of the most innovative, masterful players of the deceptively simple instrument.

This dialogue—with local percussionists, griots, and wildly talented vocalists like the velvet-voiced Sacko—has borne striking fruit. Stern can play electic guitar with an aplomb that echoes desert blues legend Ali Farka Toure. Her voice intertwining with Sacko’s, Stern can render traditional songs, with their tales of love and friendship, fluently in English and Bambara (as she does on “Djarabi (My Love)”).

Stern’s work on the songs that eventually became Smoke No Fire began with a spirited engagement with Mali’s folk traditions, as Stern learned tunes and lyrics from her close musical collaborators and found English words to express their complex sentiments, as she does on “Yiriba (Tall Tree).” These recasting in a new language often broaden the songs’ meanings, making their message relevent beyond their original cultural context.

“In Mali, every house has a tree in the yard, and that’s where you eat, discuss, give people in marriage. You’re born and you die under the tree,” Stern notes. “The song talks about how the tall tree has fallen and asks, ‘What are we going to do now?’ I thought it was appropriate because of the destruction of the rainforest, of the suicidal way we are destroying our home.”

While playing with traditional forms, Stern was inspired by her friendships with a crew of Bamako MCs. Their voices and visions spoke to her, and even inspired her to rap in Bambara herself (“Djilama (Water)”). “They really speak the language in a particular, happening way,” Stern says. “They are very politically and socially conscious and have a message. Starting three records ago, I enjoy their contribution rhythmically, but it’s also the voice of the yonger generation. It’s poetry, a new kind of poetry.”

This new kind of poetry, along with blazing blues solos, hard-hitting Malian funk, and gorgeous viola and traditional percussion, was the right fit for the tough times Stern encountered as she was finishing up the album as part of a short tour in Mali. She and her collaborators ducked into the studio, avoiding drunken soldiers and early curfews, writing songs like “Smoke No Fire,” inspired by a Malian saying that means that even if it looks like trouble is brewing, it may not be a full-blown disaster.

“My last album before this one, Sabani, was a really happy album. Times were good in Mali,” Stern explains. “I hope they’ll be good again. Right now they are not. There’s a big problem. Harmony and stability can’t exist in a vacuum.” But friendly dialogue and meaningful exchange can happen, even in the worst of times, as Stern and her fellow musicians’ work proves.

Dispatch Details

Concert Start Time:
9:00 PM
Roots Cultural Center
Venue St. Address:
276 Westminster Street
Venue City, State:
Providence, RI
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