Leni Stern’s Dakar Suite
An epic, world wandering career comes full circle
Before guitarist singer-songwriter Leni Stern fell in love with the music of Africa, she was an award winning jazz guitarist. Her innovative early bands drew in such greats as Dennis Chambers, Bill Frisell, Michael Brecker and Paul Motian. “All jazz musicians know that jazz comes from Africa,” says Stern, looking back. But that reality truly came into focus 20 years ago when she first heard the rich, percussion based mbaalx pop of Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour. The crack and punch of the sabar drum, the layers of rhythm and the depth of expression in the vocal performances compelled her to visit Dakar and experience the music and musicians first hand. Nothing has been the same since.
Stern’s 2006 appearance at the legendary Festival in the Desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, connected her with a new world of musicians—in effect, a new family. She began making regular pilgrimages—three or four a year—to Mali to listen, learn, perform, compose, record, collaborate and build deep friendships with the likes of Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté and his magnificent vocalist wife Ami Sacko, who taught Stern to sing the griot classic “Malisadio,” a standout track on her 2016 CD Dakar Suite.
Dakar Suite is Stern’s eighth African inspired album, and it completes the circle of her remarkable career in a number of ways. Political unrest destabilized Mali in 2012. Stern was all set to play a concert in Bamako on the day the city collapsed into the turmoil of a military coup d’etat. Over the next year, unable to visit Mali, she rekindled her “love affair with Senegal,” recording an album of original songs with musicians in Dakar. She studied sabar drumming with percussionist Alioune Faye, and mapped songs she had written on guitar and the Malian n’goni to these distinctly Senegalese rhythms. She and her New York band—Mamadou Ba (bass) and Alioune Faye (percussion)—worked the songs before live audiences at her home base, the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. Then it was time to return to Dakar and record Dakar Suite.
Stern’s Malian musical relationships have often revolved around collaborations with players of local harps and lutes which enriched the soundscapes but limited harmonic possibilities. But now, in a percussion based milieu, she was free to bring in more of the complex chord changes and harmonic nuances of her jazz past. Also new this time around was the decision to do overdubs and mix in Manhattan, where she could incorporate contributions from her New York posse: Karen Waltuch on viola, George Brooks on saxophone, Gil Goldstein on accordion, James Genus on acoustic bass, Shane Theriot and Mike Stern on guitars and Leo Genovese on piano and Farfisa. The result is the deepest and most satisfying blend yet of Stern’s jazz roots and her far flung branches into the richest musical realms of West Africa.
A pair of linked pieces “Dark Blue” and “Dark Blue Reprise,” one vocal and one instrumental, exemplify the new material. Dense textures of acoustic piano, sabar percussion, soprano saxophone, and tasty guitar playing interplay in a complex flow that links jazzy adventurism with rootsy African sensibility. Stern says that these pieces inspired the CD’s title. “Suite is a term from the 14th century classical music for a series of dances,” she notes. “By the 17th century it grew into a collection of compositions that were thematically and tonally linked. I liked the name for this collection of songs because sabar is originally a music accompanying dance. Many of the great Senegalese bands have dancers performing with them.”
The exuberance of dance music comes to the fore on tracks like “Hide and Seek,” with its pointillist guitar and sax riffing, funky bass, organ washes and ebullient choral hooks, all rooted in the snappy drive of sabar drums. It’s impossible not to move. A more subtle example comes in the swaying, waltz-like “Oshune.” This seductive story song unfolds over a marriage of almost ceremonial sabar rhythm and elegant acoustic and electric guitar playing.
For all the unique elements in her sound, Stern is at heart a songwriter, and the compositions on Dakar Suite range from a personal response to the church shootings in Charleston (“Mercy”) to an adaptation of a morally complex African fable of prejudice, betrayal and ultimate redemption (“Oshune”) to her sabar-fueled rendition of “Malisadio.” Shifting easily between English, French and Bambara, Stern sings with angelic clarity and palpable conviction. A storyteller and visionary, she bridges continents and cultures. Only prolonged exposure to such a broad array of influences can yield such confident fluidity.
Through it all, Stern reminds us that she remains the sterling guitarist honored five times as Gibson Guitar’s Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year. Her playing is a dependable delight, whether pouring out her soul on acoustic on “Mercy” or wailing from the heart a-la-Bonnie Raitt on the Mamadou Ba composition “Tuareg Dance.” Four largely instrumental tracks give Stern and her accompanists plenty of room to improvise, creating a pleasing flow of arrangement and spontaneity throughout this set of songs. Dakar Suite is a journey, for Stern, for her brilliant collaborators, and for any listener, whether their tastes run to jazz, African roots or indie rock.
One of New York’s most innovative musical creators has delivered her tour de force, at once a summing up of a 20-year global musical adventure, and a glimpse of the music of the future.
released May 6, 2016
Leni Stern: electric, acoustic and baritone guitars, n'goni, lead and backing vocals
Alioune Faye: djembe and n'der
Baye Demba Faye: mbangbang
Gibbi Faye: goron gu talmbat
Eladje Faye: dcho
Moussa Faye: toungoune
Baye Faye: dje, tom bass (Mercy reprise)
Makura Mbaye: percussion assistant
Aboubakar Sidiki Sacko: n'goni
Mamadou Ba: electric bass and n'goni bass
James Genus: acoustic bass
MIke Stern: guitar solo (patience)
Leo Genovese: piano and Farfisa
Karen Waltuch: viola
George Brooks: saxophones
Gil Goldstein: accordion
Jonathan Goldberger: guitar and tape echo
Shane Theriot: electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel and Omnichord
Lara Bello, Emily Elbert, Nalani and Sarina Bolton, Keith Anthony Fluitt, and Alioune Faye: backing vocals
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