Interviews May 21, 2021
Leni Stern Talks Composing and Recording During the Pandemic

Leni Stern is a guitarist, singer/songwriter and band leader whose music spans jazz, folk, African, Latin and other global styles. She has been a presence in New York’s live music scene for many years and has toured the world, working with a huge assortment of artists, including Malian stars Salif Keita and Bassekou Kouyate. Afropop’s Banning Eyre has known and played with Leni for years, so their Zoom conversation about Leni’s 22nd CD Dance (out June 4, 2021) is as much a dialogue between old friends as a journalistic interview. Here it is!

Banning Eyre: Hey, Leni. How is life in the East Village these days?

Leni Stern: Very good.

It's coming back to life?

It never stopped. The East Village was always popping. Even during the pandemic.

It's pretty much the only place I went in New York in the last year. I went just once to play on the street in front of The Front on East 11th St. where I've seen you playing on YouTube.

Yes. Isn't that the best? All the Spanish people love us there. We've been very lucky here. I've just been studying music the whole time—all the things that I didn't have time for.

Such as?

Like John Coltrane's songbook. I really upgraded my percussion training with our percussionist, Alou [Alioune Faye from Senegal]. I had lots of time to practice. We were so restricted from the pandemic that you couldn't distract yourself. I had hours and hours to myself to practice music and to go over Alioune’s percussion calls. I actually tried to write them down. It's not easy to fit them into our metric system. Jamey Haddad did a great job writing down a lot of African rhythms. I studied with him, and he showed me some of them.

But you know, as a guitar player, drummers have a different way of writing, with several staffs for all of their drums. It's kind of hard for us to read. I was looking for a way to write for guitar players. Because in African music, we respond to the drums, or play in unison with the bass, or answer the bass. The drums call the bass, and we answer the bass. Or we embellish the bass parts. Everyone has their place. But to notate it all! To this day, I don't know if the sabar starts with “ra-ka-ta tin” or with “ta tin.” It's just whichever fits nicely onto the call that Alioune plays. It's an entirely musical decision always, so you can't write it like Western music and analyze it and have a receipt for it.

For the sake of our readers, introduce Alioune.

Eladji Alioune Faye is the middle son of Sing Sing Faye, who passed away one day before Doudou Ndiaye Rose. The two masters of sabar left together in August 2015.


And Alioune’s elder brother has taken Sing Sing’s place as the consultant and resident archive and griot master of Senegalese percussion. Alioune is the middle brother. He’s also a dancer. When Alioune was younger, he was as good a dancer as a percussionist. But he was the percussionist for the Royal National Ballet of Senegal for many years. And he toured with his father who was the first griot who brought Senegalese music to the University of Chicago. When we were in Chicago, I took the band to a steakhouse where we could have some real Chicago feeling, with a blues band and all, and he said, "I have been here before, when I was very young." He had come with his father.

You know, in sabar music, we have many different drums. And they are all different. It's like a European orchestra, everything has a function. And all of our sound engineers have to learn the sounds and the names of them all. There is the sabar drum; there is the tungune; there is the chol; there is the djembe… So you need one person to play each of the instruments. And Alioune and his brothers all come together like a little gang with their sticks to play sabar.

But Alioune lives in New York now. For how long?

A long time. He had a green card for many, many years. Now he's got a passport. He's an official American now. But he's still on Facebook with his entire family half of the day. We set up all the stuff for his family, to cook for his mother since he can't be there to supervise. He talks to the lady. “No, you do not eat two cakes for breakfast.” You know in Dakar, they have these French pastry shops.

Dangerous. I remember.

Dangerous, dangerous. “Not for breakfast, or for dessert in the afternoon. How about oranges?”

This photo and banner for this piece by Jonathan Mannion
This photo and banner for this piece by Jonathan Mannion

So in addition to all that practicing and studying, you managed to record this album during the pandemic.

Yes. As soon as we could open up a little bit, I formed a bubble with Alioune and Mamadou [Ba, the bass player] and we started rehearsing this new material. Because I thought it was very important not to let the pandemic run our lives. With all the fears and mistakes and Trump looming and mismanaging everything. And also, I felt like as a person who has traveled the world, the pandemic didn't seem like such a big deal. I've been in an area where there was ebola in Mali. So this whole thing about the vaccination to me is a mystery. I have the little yellow book that you record all your vaccinations and when you travel. I've been vaccinated for cholera, typhoid, yellow fever…

I hear you. What's the problem? Just get vaccinated. Then you don't worry.

And sometimes there's the big needle with the fluid going into it. But that little Covid prick? You can't even feel it. “Am I vaccinated? Yes or no?” [Laughs] And of course our generation, we still have friends who had polio.

Yes. I remember eating the little sugar cube when I was a kid.

I don't know how we got to a place where freedom is no mask. “How would you like a ventilator, sir? Bye-bye, vocal cords.”

So you formed this pod and started rehearsing…

And working on a new concept. You know, we have Leo Genovese [on piano] as a constant member now, so I was trying to stretch the harmonic content of the pentatonic scales.

I hear that. It sounds more like a jazz album than some of your previous releases.

Some people say that. Some people say it sounds more Latin. Some people say it sounds more like Weather Report.

And Return to Forever.

Yes. Joe Zawinul figured out how to play a pentatonic scale over everything. Michael Brecker also played pentatonic scales over "Giant Steps," only pentatonic scales. So with that knowledge of the modern jazz sound, I approached the African grooves differently. You know, it can sound really bad. You remember those Indian movie scores where they started putting harmonies to ragas? All of a sudden the tambura [drone] modulates? The electronic tambura? It is a tricky endeavor to combine different cultural traditions into a new tradition.

But with me, studying in Boston, idolizing the Third Stream guys, Gunther Schuller and all those guys, there is a language for that in classical music. That's why it's called Third Stream. There are rules. There are experiences. People have fallen on their face trying to do that before. But now there's a whole vocabulary on how you do that successfully. As a composer, this was fabulous, especially collaborating with Leo. Some of my favorite classical composers are Villa-Lobos and Leo Brouwer. You check out those guitar pieces that Brouwer wrote…

Yes. Leo Brouwer. I once tackled a couple of his pieces. They are intense.

You know whatever Fernando Sor did not give to my soul, Leo Brouwer did. Brouwer’s music had a groove in it, but it is also so sad.

You were talking about Leo Genovese, your piano player, who is awesome. Tell us about him.

Well, he is Argentine. You know, there are a lot of people of European descent in Argentina, especially a lot of Italian people. So he comes from Italian ancestry. I think it's a long time ago, his great-grandfather or someone—but not of that second world war generation. Much earlier. But he still has an Italian passport. Well, he had one. He has since become an American. But I know because when we toured together in Europe, that Italian passport came in very handy. It was much easier to handle than the Senegalese passports.

No doubt.

Yes, his name starts with El Hadj, but no, he is not a terrorist. The joys of world music and touring. I take my hat off to the World Music Institute here in New York for bringing so many artists here. They are heroes, brave people.

God bless them.

They know the passport agencies but—thank you, Trump—they could not bring in any artists from Muslim majority countries, no matter how well they played it. But coming back to Leo, he has that rich, South American harmonic sense, those Brazilian cadences that never end. It's a very modern sound. And then the drama of the Argentinian tango. That sensibility goes so well with the Senegalese sabar. When you look at both dances, they're both full of pride and tragedy. “You looked at my wife!”

That is so true. There's a kind of severe passion in both of them.

Seriously sensual. But Leo was always our special guest before, because he was very busy with Esperanza Spalding when she toured the world. You know, I was friends with Esperanza first. But actually, you know how I met Leo? Me and Esperanza and Leo went on a journey to save the Peruvian rainforest. It was a film that was made, and they wanted us to come and be sort of the public faces of that journey and talk about it. So we traveled the rain forest together for three weeks.

Photo by Sandrine Lee
Photo by Sandrine Lee

Sounds wonderful.

That's how I really got to know Leo. We were in a little tiny boat going down the Madre de Dios River. The movie was about illegal gold mining in Peru. Gigi Hancock, Herbie’s wife was involved. And you know where I met those two? It was at the Festival in the Desert in Mali. That's how that Peruvian journey happened, because they're both very engaged in saving the rainforest, the lungs of our world. I'm always trying to engage myself, or lend my voice to that cause, or to create awareness to what the hell people are doing there. So that's how I got really tight with Leo, and I started inviting him to play. I think he's on volumes three and four with my current band.

I remember seeing him play with you at Iridium some years back. I was blown away. It sounds like for this album, you co-composed with Leo. Is that right? How did you go about writing these songs?

We co-composed, but we arranged really. We started from cells of compositions and then arranged and co-composed together. Mamadou and Alioune both brought in some history. The song “Maba” is named for Mamadou’s great-great-grandfather, the griot sage, Maba. That's a song Mamadou wrote for him. It's funny. When you look the grandfather up on Wikipedia, they call him "the original jihadist,” which of course he is not. He was a Sufi saint.

Mamadou takes an amazing bass solo on that song.

Yes he does. That's what matters, right? You know, as a white girl with the guitar, I was so honored to be given that song. I felt very privileged to be asked to arrange that kind of music. “Maba” came spreading Islam in Senegal. I think he kicked the French asses too. The French were there very early.

Before we go into more of the songs, why did you call the album Dance?

Because I would like to think that you can't sit still while listening.

That's a good answer. Leni, I'm just amazed at how prolific you are. Do we even know how many CDs you've made? I can't keep count.


Amazing. And you're still young.

I had to list them on my website. That's how I know.

You mentioned that people hear Latin influence in this record. I hear that too, but specifically Brazilian. I hear a lot of Brazil here. Am I crazy?

Well, you know, my first world music outing was Brazilian music. My first guitar teacher was from Argentina. That was when I was a child. He used to say, "I cannot teach you the tango, because you do not know what is like to be heartbroken." I replied that my mom wouldn't let me have a puppy.

I doubt that impressed him. Argentines and tango; that's deep.

But he played a lot of Brazilian music. Because as my Brazilian friend said, "All Argentinians secretly wish they were Brazilians." Don't tell Leo I said that. But I love Milton Nascimento and so much Brazilian music, especially their harmonies. You know, it's a music that is so guitaristic. As a guitar player, you can understand it. All of jazz is based around the piano and the saxophone. Now Brazilian music, it's guitar.

And it's combining jazz harmony with those wonderful samba and bossa nova rhythms.

Yes. This is our turf. It comes easily. You don't have the range of the piano. You have six strings instead of 88 keys. That was my first foray into rhythms that are very highly syncopated. Before, I played funk. And then I played Brazilian music. Because when we were young, you had Stan Getz and all of that.

Sure. It was the bossa nova moment.

Bossa nova was a worldwide phenomenon. Everyone had to play at least two or three versions of that rhythm. And then came the Cuban wave and all that. I was very, very much into Cuban composers. Pablo Milanes, the songwriter.

Yes. Beautiful.

It was all to get that extra rhythm into the bass. The same in Jamaican music. The bass is not just a timekeeper, not just another instrument. It's melodic. That always fascinated me. All these voices going every which way. And it's very difficult. Because it can sound awful. It's a hazardous enterprise to mix all of that.

The other reason I think of Brazil when I hear this is that you do a lot of scat singing right along with your guitar, and it reminds me of Flora Purim.

Yes. I love that band. I think Brazilians started scatting in a way that I didn't think was corny. It's like another instrument. And you know, Mike [Stern, Leni’s husband] and I, when we write songs… Mike always writes songs in a mezzo-tenor range, which is not the human voice range, and he always gets a sore throat from singing his own melodies. I say, "Why are you singing in a tenor range? It's not your range.” But singing with the guitar is such an organic thing. I'm glad you like that scatting. I love what it does to the sound of the guitar to have it accompanied by the voice.

Speaking of Mike, I saw that video of you and him playing one of your compositions, “The Cat Stole the Moon.”

That was during quarantine. We were alone together. They filmed it, but it never got broadcast because something happened… Oh yes. George Floyd got killed. And we said, "This is way too happy a song for these times." Then they put it out later. But that was great. I got to play with Mike a lot, and I learned a ton from him.

I bet you did.

He is such a treasure trove of wisdom about the guitar. We played "Giant Steps” and all of those Coltrane songs. He has transcribed everybody, Sonny Rollins, so many... I've done some of that too, but I don't keep it alive the same way he does. And we just went back into our Boston days and the bebop moves, and the time of Herbie and Wayne and all those songs. We basically played guitar together for a year.

I hear some of that in this album. It has more jazz in it than some of the earlier work.

Maybe. Maybe that did creep in. You're right. All those chromatic bebop things that I love so much. And then of course Leo is the master of that. And Mamadou and Alioune, they can hold the sound. You know, sometimes when you do these jazz tunes, everybody goes bananas, and then the audience feels left out. Everybody's having fun except them. I get that feeling when I listen to a piece sometimes. “Yo ho! I’m here!” But with Alioune and Mamadou, they cannot budge from the groove. They also have ears this wide. When Leo does these rhythmic escapades in the solos, Alioune hears everything.

Let's talk about some of the songs. You start right out with a prayer, “Ya Rahman.”

You know, that was basically a “fuck you” to president Trump. It started with the Muslim prayer. I put the Lord's Prayer in there too. It’s just a “fuck you” to everyone who thinks that narrow mindedly. At some point, I couldn't take it anymore. You know, that's one of the most beautiful things in the Muslim faith. The Senegalese are Sufis, so they have the poetic part, not the scientists, but the art and expressive side. They have 100 names for God. This is like poetry. They have poetry in their religion. I knew some of those names, ya rahman, diarabi. Diarabi really means “darling.”

Yes, like the famous Malian song.

In Bambara, they say diarabi, but it’s an Arabic word that means "beloved." It's in the Muslim prayers, the prayers in the Koran. So I just listed as you would in a Muslim prayer, the many names of God.

That's what all those lyrics are.

All those lyrics. And it ends with the phrase "you are the one,” which is like a traditional way of ending those lists of names. And then I thought that since I am not Senegalese and not a Muslim, the Lord's Prayer is really the best we came up with. It has some pretty good poetry. So I just took a part of the Lord's Prayer and put it in there. It's just a deeply felt statement that I needed to make. I have seen the discrimination that my Muslim friends suffer. I felt like getting in people's faces with my black belt, but that doesn't really accomplish anything. Because the injustice remains. So I have this need to say something publicly about it and to prove how beautiful it is. “You don't even know what it is that you’re banning.” Islam is one of the newest religions that came after Christianity. They made everybody a prophet. What else do you want? I was just so beside myself about it so I wrote this song.

I hear also in the scales that Leo is playing an Arabic sensibility. Let's talk about “Aljouma.” This is one where I really felt Brazil.

Aljouma. It means Friday in Wolof, and Friday is Sunday in Islam. On a Friday afternoon, everyone goes to the mosque. It's the day of prayer. Everyone gets dressed up to go to the mosque. Nothing happens on Friday. That's because it's Sunday. Nothing happens in the West on Sunday either. “You're calling me on a Sunday?" I hear that from my publicist. So that’s Aljouma. It's that celebration.

You have a lovely guitar solo on that one.

Thank you. You say it sounds like Brazilian music, but of course Brazilian music comes from Africa.

Of course. But when I hear something that sounds Latin, my first instinct is to try to think—is it more in the Brazil rhythmic family or the Cuba rhythmic family. Of course there are others, but you can start there. This felt more in the Brazilian side. Especially with that wordless vocal.

Do they have a name for that in Brazil?

I imagine they do. I just call it Flora.

Flora. I can live with that.

We spoke about Maba.” What about Kani?”

It means hot pepper. That is Leo's song. You know in Senegal they give you that sauce with the tieboudienne [jollof rice and fish]. It's just a squished hot African pepper with a little bit of vinegar and oil in there. It's a deadly thing that will kill anything that's not good for you. That is kani. I love kani.

The song is quite rhythmically playful. That makes sense now. And then there’s Khale” or “Children.” It starts out sounding lie a swing song, but then it shifts into an Afro- Latin groove.

It starts out like a swing song, but it was not a swing song. It's a composition by Alioune, and Leo reharmonized it. He just started playing those chords. It started out as a song in the key of D. D. Nothing else. And then Leo started playing those chords. And Alioune said, “Do that!” And then it goes into those more modern chords. But it's still a deep groove. That's kind of the collaboration that we do. Somebody comes in with a song and then it changes. Mamadou is great with forms. "Let's wait eight bars. Let's let it breathe.” That's how that intro happened. On Mamadou’s song “Maba,” Leo also reharmonized that.

It sounds like he's playing a Fender Rhodes on that one.

That's right. We recorded at Shelter Sound on 27th Street. We rehearse in there. It's on the sixth floor of that building. There are some good acoustic guitars there, and the microphones, those old Neumanns. They’re like lungs. And they record fabulously. Studio recording was cool during a pandemic, because sound carries on air, so you have to isolate. Of course when I sang in the vocal booth I took the mask off. And actually, there was no hanging out in the room. We listened on our headphones. But it was totally doable. I felt so lucky that this was actually possible. You know, it's kind of a solitary thing to begin with. You sit by yourself and you practice and compose and you write. We are creatures who need solitude to do what we do. It's only in French novels that people write in a café.

Apparently James Joyce was quite good at doing it over the shouting of his children. But that's a special case.

Yes. I think it helps that my band is from the third world, so they are used to difficult situations with their music. Recording in South America or Africa does not happen under the posh circumstances that we have here. And I've played for the last 15 years under those circumstances. I played through whatever amplifier. Nowadays I have a solid-state head that I travel with, but in the past, in Africa, I played through so many Roland Jazz Choruses.

Ah yes. The favorite amplifier of the griot guitarist, and many African guitarists. Tell me about the song “Kono” or “Bird.” I hear what sounds like kamele ngoni there.

That’s Harouna Samake. That was a pandemic digital synch recording with him in Mali. His agent in Europe made it very easy. I sent a finished recording and he recorded over it. But we wrote the song together in Mali much earlier, Harouna and I, at the old Sofitel Hotel in Bamako. It's by the river. It's kind of a high-rise. But there are these birds that come in flocks every morning and every night. They do that swarming bird dance. And they come very close to the windows of that weird high-rise. And I was sitting there with Harouna and we were reminiscing about our times with Salif [Keita] and life in general. You know, we've been friends for a long, long time. I saw those birds and I wrote a song about them and I showed it to Harouna like we used to do on the album Sabani. I played a riff, and then he played the answer to that riff, and that's how that song came about. I had the English lyrics about very small blackbirds in the early morning, and he came in with Bambara words. We spent a long time trying to figure out how to say “window” in Bambara. There is no word for window, because they didn't used to have them. So he just went with "outside my house."

So then I brought it to my band and they actually put a sabar rhythm to it. I sent it to Harouna to see what he thought, and he said it was like the two sabar players in Toumani Diabate’s band. You know, Toumani was the first one in Mali to do that, to bring in two sabar players into Mande music. The Symmetric Orchestra sometimes has two sabar players. I think Toumani's mother is Senegalese. Anyway, according to Harouna, Toumani is half Senegalese.By the way, Leo made a video of “Kono.” He's one of those South American guys who's great at everything artistic.

So then there’s Daouda Sane.” This one feels more on the Cuban side. Very hot song.

That's a traditional Wolof song that Alioiune arranged. I didn't sing the Wolof lyrics. They ended up on the cutting room floor. Also there was a [Leo] Genovese attack on that song. It started in one key, and then went into many keys. I think it modulates three times.

And then the last song, Fonio,” which is a grain I remember eating in Mali. I think that's the one song on this album that is in 6/8 time.

You know how in Mali you are all around the same plate, and you all eat with your hand. It has that community feeling. It's about eating together, with the hands, and you talk about this and that. It's the ultimate community experience. Also, our friend Pierre Thiam is a Senegalese chef.

Of course. And he has that wonderful restaurant at the Africa Center.

Yes, before the pandemic, we used to have our CD release parties at his restaurant because it was the best Senegalese food in New York. But the song is just about that experience of eating together.

Well, congratulations on producing something so rich during the pandemic. What is the official release date?

June 4th. Thank you very much for doing this.

My pleasure. And I look forward to seeing you playing soon. We’re coming out of this thing. It's happening!

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