“Every artist has a place they have wanted to play all their lives. For some, it’s Carnegie Hall, for others, the Hollywood Bowl. For me, it was always the Festival of the Desert in Mali, under the stars,” says Leni Stern by phone from her New York home. Born in Munich, Germany, Stern began playing the guitar at eleven years of age. She moved to New York after studying Film Scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and gained widespread recognition first as a blues and jazz guitarist (she was awarded the Gibson Guitar’s Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year for five consecutive years) and later began composing and singing, also garnering acclaim as a singer-songwriter.
Many of Stern’s projects for the last six years are firmly centered in Africa, thanks to collaborations that took off when she finally did play the Festival of the Desert in 2006, where she has since played nearly every year since. The desert was the perfect place to develop relationships with other musicians, she says with a hint of a smile, because thanks to the festival’s remote location – beyond Timbuktu – “there’s not much else to do but sit around and play music!”
Shortly after that pivotal first gig in the desert, Stern was invited by UNESCO to mentor studio engineers in Mali, which allowing the deepening of a long and beautiful friendship with the land, and in particular, one of its instruments: the ngoni ba. “It’s unbelievably haunting, just gets in your head and calls you,” she muses. Being a stringed instrument in the lute family and the great-grandfather of the banjo, the instrument was also not entirely unfamiliar to her as a guitarist. She also found other familiar connections with the ngoni’s melodies and rhythms, says Stern: “After all, our blues and jazz all can be traced back to where they all began, Africa.” Her love of the instrument flourished in a profound relationship with her teacher’s son, master ngoni player Bassouku Kouyate and his family – Stern is the godmother of one of his children. One of her proudest days, she exclaims, was playing alongside Bassouku Kouyate as one of fifty ngoni players at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Malian independence.
Her African projects continue to develop, as she is now participating in the new “Acoustic Africa” project, due out in the Fall, which in this edition (the third) is all women, and includes African luminaries such as Dobet Gnahoré. Stern is also recording another album in Mali to be released in the Fall, as she travels to Africa at least twice a year to record and also to teach workshops at CIAMO (International Center of Art and Music) in Ouidah, Benin.
Stern speaks passionately about the importance of CIAMO project: “Oudiah was one of the places that was a major slave port. It was as site of great cruelty and tragedy, a place of no return. It’s a beautiful way of atonement to have a school of art and music there.” And also, what better way to learn than through music, she concludes: “Music is the most fully engaging art form, and the soundwaves have such a powerful, direct impact on the body. They say rhythm is like our heartbeat.” No doubt that Stern’s own heart beats for Africa in a particularly special way.
Leni Stern comes to Chicago with the “Masters of African Percussion,” performing February 18 at Old Town School of Folk Music.