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Leni Stern: Storyteller

By Published: December 19, 2007

LS: Well, I learned what was really important to me. I found the strength that I needed to overcome it, and had from then on. It's an interesting experience when you confront your mortality. We all walk around as if we were all to live for ever. I mean, we sort of have to, but when you realize the finite nature of our existence, it messes up your head but in actuality it really helps you a lot.

AAJ: Let's talk about your new album Africa which I think marks a new chapter in your career.

LS: I think it does.

AAJ: To record in Africa with African musicians, was this a concept that you had wished to explore for some time?

LS: I was involved in Indian music, and the great thing about jazz is that you can integrate all of these influences and enrich your music. It happened because I was invited to play the Festival in the Desert in Mali, which was a festival I always wanted to play because it's so romantic and I met African musicians there that ended up on the record.

We performed together, I asked them to sit in with me and we just really clicked. Bassekou [Kouyate] is sort of the historian of west African n'goni, which is the ancestor of the guitar, and he has recorded with people like Taj Mahal, who shares my opinion that when you go there, and play with them there, you really find the roots of what you're doing, so it was very easy to play with them and it was just loads of fun.


I returned just by accident and started recording because at the time Salif Keita had created this program with UNICEF for young African recording engineers, who would get a chance to record with European engineers and then go to Europe to continue the training. I met the engineer in the hotel and they were looking to give these kids an experience with just a regular artist. You know, throw them in at the deep end and see if they swim. They asked me if I would come and volunteer for this project.

But the recordings came out so good that I kept them and made an EP Alu Maye (LSR, 2007) out of them. I continued to record here in New York with the tracks I'd brought back, but at the time I didn't know if that was anything we could use, except to inspire to create projects like that. It's a fantastic opportunity for all these very talented young people in Africa and I've always wanted to do something good with the music and not just perform.

That's how I met Salif. It was his program, and he called me to thank me for being part of it. It wasn't such an effort because they were amazing talents because they learn to do everything with nothing. They can take a Mac apart and put it back together and it works! It was fascinating to be with them, and so inspiring. I ended up using one of those engineers for the final project because we worked so well together. His name is Abu Cisse.

AAJ: The playing on Africa is beautiful but for me a real star is the singer Ami Sacko. Is she a recording star in her own right?

LS: A big, big star. She's Bassekou's wife, so she came and sang with us at the festival and we developed a friendship, and we were kind of writing songs together. She would make up her own words or say in her language what I was saying in English, so that people could understand what I was talking about. I actually went to Paris to write with her, and I later on I recorded on her record and we did her videos together.

AAJ: Your own guitar playing, and I'm thinking of a track like "Simbo," speaks the local lingo, and I think that's also true to an extent of your singing, and it seems very effortless. I wonder how much of that ability to sing or play in an authentic-sounding African or Indian style, which you've also done, is down to hard work?

LS: It's hard work, but when you love it it's not so hard. I've always loved African guitar and it just slips into jazz and rock and pop so well and I've tried to learn how to do it. It was so clear, like trying to play jazz in Munich, that it's hard to play African music when you're not in Africa.

I kept returning to just learn the scene, and learn the rhythmic intricacies that are just tremendous, on the spot, because it's best when you play with African percussionists and African rhythm sections and you find how they feel these rhythms, how they nail all these rhythms that are going on simultaneously. I really went more to study; the record is more of a by-product of my interest in this music.

LeniAAJ: Bassekou Kouyate plays beautifully on Africa, is he a big star in Mali?

LS: Oh, he's a big, big star, the biggest n'goni star in west Africa right now.

AAJ: Africa also marked some of the final recordings of the great saxophonist Michael Brecker, it must have been quite an emotional record to make in more ways than one.

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