The Ngoni Showcased in Mali: Leni Stern's Sabani

From a media release:

CD Release: leni stern's Sabani
Release February 14, 2012

Wildly creative guitarist meets musical soulmates and engaging new instruments in Mali—and records a stark yet warm dialogue as part of a close-knit, cross-cultural trio

In a warm Malian hotel room, the ngoni smiled.

A seemingly simple instrument with an evocative sound and deep past, it was both delighting and baffling the intrepid jazz and blues guitar maven from New York. Its tuning was open to interpretation, to the player’s feeling in the moment. The tonic sat square on the middle string, not at the bottom like most Western stringed instruments.

But as Leni Stern played this great-grandfather to the banjo, she knew she was in touch with something big. “I kept feeling I had the ultimate blues instrument in my hand,” Stern explains.

This ultimate blues buoys Sabani (Leni Stern Recordings; release: February 14, 2012), a beautifully stripped down collection of graceful and dynamic instrumental lines, thoughtful songs, and catchy dialogue across traditions. Inspired by easygoing jam sessions with two Malian musician friends and recorded at Salif Keita’s Mouffou Studios in Bamako, Sabani brings the sound of every string, every pulse of the calabash and bounce of the talking drum to vivid life, to honor the intense and intimate connection Stern has developed with West African music over the last half-decade.

Stern and a trio of African master musicians—Kofo (talking drum, vocals), Alioune Faye (percussion), and Mamadou Ba (bass)—will share this sound with audiences on the West Coast and Midwest as part of their Spring 2012 tour. Cities include Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Cleveland, Albuquerque, and Phoenix.

“I don’t know why I waited so long to record this way,” Stern reflects. Stern—whose life has taken her from Munich to New York, from the Peruvian rainforests to the music school in Benin she helped found—was a veteran of the American and European avant rock, jazz, and singer-songwriter circuit.

Brought by UNESCO to mentor studio engineers in Mali, Stern was hooked. She began performing at seminal venues like the Festival in the Desert, touring with musicians from Keita to Baaba Maal, and, perhaps most importantly, making close friends with her newfound teachers and companions. She spent nearly two years living, learning, and making music across Africa.

Bassekou Kouyate, masterful player of the ngoni, and other members of his highly respected family showed Stern the instrumental ropes. Ami Sacko, a popular Malian singer often compared to Tina Turner, taught Stern songs and vocal approaches, while her brother Buba also helped Stern work on her ngoni chops. Stern became a member of the family, earning a new name (Oumou) and sharing the many adventures and trials the musicians encountered as they played for presidents or dealt with collapsing festival stages.

It was playing alongside Kouyate at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Malian independence, as one of 50 ngoni players honoring the occasion, that Stern was first wowed by the deep and resonant ngoni ba, an encounter that sparked Stern’s first ngoni-powered, blues-rich song, “Still Bleeding.”

Yet the most powerful moment that became Sabani, the spare follow up to Stern’s more lavishly arranged Africa-inspired work, was the feeling Stern savored as she jammed with friends from Keita’s band, string whiz Haruna Samake and artful percussionist Mamadou “Prince” Kone, who brings some of Mali’s lesser-known rhythms to the album.

Hanging around bus stations and airports, waiting for Keita, or meeting up in the evenings, the three friends often drank sugar-laden tea and made music together, blending their instruments and voices simply and organically.

This vibe bursts through on tracks like “Sorcerer,” which pairs Stern’s sharp, gritty, often eerie guitar with Samake’s round and percussive string work, and Stern’s Ricky Lee Jones-esque vocals with a warm, serpentine chorus in bambara Instrumentals like “An Saba” and “The Cat Who Stole the Moon” show both the virtuosity of crack players and the close listening of good friends, as contrasting yet harmonious melodies and timbres dance in dynamic interplay.

As the project came together in the relaxed atmosphere of Mouffou’s riverside studio, Stern also invited Sacko to sing (the bittersweet “Papillon”), and learned a thing or two from veteran sokou (folk fiddle) player and singer Zoumana Tareta. Tareta regaled the three friends with both wisdom earned from his life as a sought-after musician (by stars like Oumou Sangare, for example) and with the gripping vocal performance that graces “Djanfa.”

These experiences have transformed and deeply moved the seasoned Stern, filling her with a quiet, unexpected sense of coming home, a moody warmth that pervades Sabani.

“After all my time in Africa, all the musicians I’ve gotten to work with, I feel like a different guitarist, a different person, like I belong to the red earth and the warm winds and the people I love there,” Stern muses. ”I don’t think anyone can go and live there without changing profoundly. And we have a lot to learn from Africa.”

Live Dates:
• February 14, 2012 - Blue Whale, Los Angeles, CA
• February 15, 2012 - The Compound Grill, Phoenix, AZ
• February 16, 2012 - Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque, NM
• February 17, 2012 - Alvas Show Room, San Pedro, CA
• February 18, 2012 - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, IL