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Leni Stern: Storyteller

By Published: December 19, 2007

LS: Yes it was. He was one person who encouraged me to do these things, because it was a little bit of a crazy undertaking but he just thought it was the best idea and he was very involved. He insisted on playing on the EP Alu Maye, and we worked on the following tracks together in Paris. He had some requests on what he would like to play. I was heartbroken when he died in the middle of the project. We did a tribute to him, but he was meant to play on many more tracks but unfortunately he died before we could record them.

AAJ: Plenty of men have gone to Africa to record with local musicians but I can't think of too many women; you must have broken a few molds and a few stereotypes while you were there, how did people react to this white woman wielding an electric guitar?

LS: Well I really have to thank Salif because he doesn't fit in anywhere, he loved having other people not fit in and he got a big kick out of it. They were pleased that I was so interested in their music. The women were the ones who really went crazy when they saw a woman trade solos with a man. They were my biggest supporters and, since their social situation is quite difficult, it was a joy for them to see somebody not fit into a stereotype, and do well.

There were many funny episodes of me trying to be respectful to the Moslem tradition. Even at the first festival in the desert I was given a traditional robe with the notion that I should please wear it and not walk around like a westerner, and the first thing that happened was that I stepped on the damn thing and got completely entangled in it!

But it was a great experience as a woman to be able to stand for something in a nice way, because the guys like it when you play well and sing nice love songs to them. They don't quite know what to make of it. Africans are very loose; if it grooves it's okay.

AAJ: It took a couple of years and half a dozen trips to Mali to make this record. Did it ever become a grind to go back and forwards?

LeniLS: Not at all. African people are so warm and welcoming and there hospitality is legendary. I feel like it's a part of my family over there now and I actually have two godchildren there now, and it's just a joy. It was a joy from beginning to end.

The part that becomes tedious is that there's malaria and typhoid fever and you have to have a bunch of vaccinations when you go [laughs]. You are covered in mosquito repellent and you have to be careful about what you eat and all of that but that's really minor. Actually, I have more trouble at home here, picking up a cold from the terrible weather we have here, but in Africa I do very well.

AAJ: I believe you came away from Africa with more than one honorific name.

LS: [laughs] My Africa name is Oumou and Moussa Guitar Foe. (Women Guitarist) It was fun.

AAJ: What's the story behind the name Oumou?

LS: Omou was the daughter of the prophet and Bassekou gave that name to me; as a member of his family he made me a griot, which is an African storyteller, because he said I was already a storyteller. I was very honored, but I really felt it; my function as a storyteller is to keep record of what's going on, how we feel, how our world works and put it into song. It was very fitting I thought.

AAJ: You've traveled extensively which obviously provides you with inspiration for your songwriting and you've been going to India for a number of years to study Hindustani classical vocal technique, how did you get connected to Indian music in the first place?

LS: I think John Coltrane was the one who pointed out how Indian improvisation had been going on for four thousand years and had a lot for us to learn from, so I had studied the raga form and the way of improvising. I was a great fan of Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin and then I was invited to a festival in India, which gave me the opportunity to study with a local singer, and I did that and recorded with that singer on the album Finally the Rain Has Come (LSR, 2002), with Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin as well. That kind of brought me to India and I played many festivals there and traveled there. I just love their way of singing. The way I look at singing is the way I look at playing guitar, so I chose to train my voice in that fashion.

AAJ: It must have been a real thrill to have Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin playing on that album.

LS: That was so much fun, it was fantastic.

AAJ: Has your vocal training in Hindustani classical technique had a wider influence on the way you sing in general?

LS: Yes it has. It's also influenced my guitar playing/. I didn't intend it to but I was a more prolific guitarist and I learned it on the guitar first, and it really changed my articulation and my embellishment in a way that I was thrilled [about].


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