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Leni Stern: Smoke, No Fire

James Nadal By

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In March, 2012, a military coup overthrew the government in the western African nation of Mali, disrupting life for the civilian population—repetitively the victims in such situations of political turmoil. Guitarist Leni Stern was living in Mali at the time of the coup, and though she could have departed the country, she decided to stay and record Smoke, No Fire amidst chaotic circumstances in the capital city of Bamako.

This record is the stark counterpart to her production of Sabani (Self Produced) from earlier in the year, which she recalls as a "happy album" done in better times. There is a definite harder edge in the delivery and significance of the vocals, with an aggressive leaning toward rap to underscore the message coming from the streets. The opening "Djarabi" finds Stern singing in a bilingual mixture of English and Bambara, the local language in which she also sings "Yiriba," and raps convincingly on "Dji Lama," where she is joined by Malian rapper Woroferela Moden. He reappears in the title track to emphasize the confusion that has captured the country. Local respected singer and griot Ami Sacko is featured alongside Stern on various vocal tracks, as well as being a vital collaborator on the recording.

There is also a gentle side to this music, which conveys optimism and reveals a yearning for peace and understanding in the instrumentals "Tou Samake" and "Frossira." Some of the production was, for obvious reasons, done outside of Bamako; "Winter" offers a bass track by Esperanza Spalding added in New York, while "Awn Te Kalo Ye" (So Far So Fast), a perfect narrative of Stern's peculiar odyssey depicted in song, comes from Senegal.

Stern is an exceptional artist, adhering steadfastly to her own sense of direction and acknowledgment of the place and people she considers significant. As a guitarist, she continues her personal endeavor of penetrating and absorbing Malian music and, though her vocals, might be in the forefront on Smoke, No Fire, the instrumentation is both sophisticated and unassuming at the same time. Stern has mastered the art of permitting her life to confront its destiny, be it in times of peace or war. For this, she just might be the bravest woman in music today.

Track Listing: Djarabi; Winter; Smoke, No Fire; Yiriba; Lomeko; Tou Samake; Awn Te Kalo Ye; Dji Lama; Behi Mounou Mounou; Frossira.

Personnel: Leni Stern: guitar,n’goni, voice; Woroferela Moden: rap, voice; Haruna Samake: camela, n’goni; Ami Sacko: voice; Mamadou Ba: bass; Alioune Faye: djembe; Kofo: talking drum; Abou Cisse: voice; Jami Sacko: backing vocals; Mamadou Kone: calabash; Ouba Sacko: n’goni, n’goni bass; Jelli Ba Diabate: doun doun; Madou Djembe: djembe; Mamadou Kone: calabash; Esperanza Spalding: bass (2); Leo Genovese: accordion, synthesizer; Mike Stern: guitar solo (5); Ben Holmes: trumpet; Karen Waltuch: viola.

Title: Smoke, No Fire | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Self Produced


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