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Leni Stern: Finally The Fame Has Come

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: That was heavy. Maybe it's a good time to lighten things up a bit.[Leni breaks out in laughter]. I saw a photo several years ago of you and Mike at home with two beautiful white cats. As a huge animal lover and rescuer, I'm curious to know if you still have cats or any other pets?

LS: One of those white cats is still with us. Although his brother passed, Maximillan is still with us and is now twenty one years old. Oriental cats can get very old. In addition we have two other cats now.

AAJ: Twenty one years old. That is really awesome. Perhaps you could tell us about your childhood, especially in relationship to music.

LS: The first music I really liked was that of the Romani. This was a large community in Germany. I didn't want to go to school. I just wanted to learn to play. I always thought the Roma kids were the luckiest kids in the world. I had voice lessons when I was a little girl. My mother took me to music lessons. I had the obligatory piano lessons for twelve years. The bargain was that if I studied the piano properly, I was also allowed to play the guitar. And then there was voice, because I liked to sing. But I was always more interested in being a guitarist than a vocalist. When studying became serious, I had to choose. So, I chose the guitar. Then, in America, I studied composition. My voice became my instrument when studying and playing Indian music. I don't play an Indian instrument, but was able to use my voice in that capacity.

AAJ: Finally The Rain Has Come[2002] is a personal favorite of mine. It is such a fantastic piece of work. The song "Bury Me Standing" gets me every time. It's not just a favorite song of yours, but a classic overall. It's so lyrically strong. Where did that song come from?

LS: It's a song about the Romani, the people who have been discriminated against. In America, the African Americans. In Germany, they are the Roma. Until a very few years ago, a judge in Bavaria would not imprison a farmer for shooting a Roma. The concentration camps were built for the Jews and the Romani. They put out such wonderful music. When I was a child the circus would come to town in Germany. My father would take me to ride the ponies. I always saw the Romani playing guitar and making this big, big, music. They cultivated such great music and I was a big fan. Later, as an adult, I read the book Bury Me Standing [Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey was written by Isabel Fonseca and published in 1995]. I always wondered if I had some Roma blood in me. I had a grandmother that married a chimney sweep. This was a profession that was done by the Romani like a horse-smith. You had to be a traveling man to do those jobs. I've always wondered if someone in my family didn't keep a secret, and that's why I play guitar like that. Sometimes it was like, "What is it that you aren't telling me?"

AAJ: Your husband also mentioned that when you are at home you two jam on Coltrane stuff. Just how cool and fun is that?

LS: It's really fun. I love to play with Mike Stern. I am a very lucky girl. I get to play with him every day. He is so kind. He practices with me all the songs I need to play. I play in a South American band called Oxossi and a large ensemble called the Monika Herzig Band. I sometimes play in a big band. On all of these projects Mike plays at home with me. We both have our own projects but we like to play a song or two on each other's records. Maybe do a cameo at a show. Mike is my favorite person and favorite guitarist. I love what he plays on this new record. He was very excited about it.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit more about the new record.

LS: Oh, well let me tell you about the last song on the record. It is called "Crocodile." It is a song about people going out and capturing crocodiles. They have people, like a whole family or tribe, that specializes in getting crocodiles out of the wrong places. There is a chant they use, and that I incorporate into this song. According to legend, when a crocodile hears the chant it will ease up. But I'm not going to try that [laughter]. But, it is interesting the way they hypnotize the animals with the drums. They try to put them in a trance before they tie them up and move them.

AAJ: I have listened to many other artists that have attempted to integrate African and Indian music into jazz. Frankly, it often sounds quite disjointed. As in, here are twenty seconds of jazz, now here are twelve seconds of chants, followed by ten more seconds of jazz, etc. Your fusion is remarkably seamless and blends as one. It must have indeed taken a total immersion of time and focus to climb this mountain and reach such spectacular heights.

LS: Thank you very much. One of my favorite things is Shakti. This is John McLaughlin's band that is a mixture of jazz and Indian music. John studied, and can teach, Indian music. He is a very good friend of mine. He played on Finally The Rain Has Come. So did Zakir Hussain. I studied African music for ten years after the ten year study of Indian music. I finally am feeling my way. There is so much music in Africa. Every tribe has their own take. Africa is a continent and a treasure trove of music and languages. This adventure was modeled with John's work firmly in mind. Some people think that African music is savage music with people banging around on the drums. That's just not true [spoken with emphasis]. The songs are over nine hundred years old. The Americans justified slavery and colonialism by saying that these people are like savages, and we have caged them. That's not true! They conquered an empire and subjugated them. I sometimes think that is why Western artists are so arrogant and think that it would be just like one, two, three to learn the African music. There is no one, two, three of learning hundreds and hundreds of rhythms. The mixture of cultures is the ultimate. The cadences are so different. It can take years to grasp how a cadence works.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier sometimes playing South American rhythms.

LS: Yes we went on a tour of South America last year and we found all these great South American bands. We played all over Argentina and we met a lot of other musicians. We have here, in New York, a Colombian percussionist, bandleader, and arranger extraordinaire named Samuel Torres. He is one of my favorite people. He comes in and sits in with us sometimes. So then we are mixing the South American and African rhythms. There is a song on the new record called "Colombiano" that was written for him. People get excited when they hear that the Colombiano is coming in today.

AAJ: Thank you so very much for taking the time today, Leni. Your skills of composition, your voice and phrasing, your guitar and n'goni skills, are beyond reproach. Yet, you have often been considered more of a niche artist that somehow has stayed under the radar. It seems as though that tide is shifting and that after over thirty years of writing and recording top shelf material, more recognition is coming your way. Does it feel that way to you?

LS: Well, it is hard for the little tree to grow in the shadow of the big tree. I hope so, and yes, I think so. You know, my talents are in composing and performing music, not in marketing myself. I have never wanted to do something just for the sake of being successful. It's more about being true to yourself and the music.

AAJ: We will look forward to your new record release, 3, on April 28th. Thank you again.

LS: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking with you. Be sure to send me some cat photos.

AAJ: I will indeed.
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