Theo Wargo, Getty Images Black Sabbath are riding high on the fact that their new…
- Posted on Dec 11th 2007 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
It's only right, the Munich, Germany-born guitarist says. Mali is where most of the music on the album, simply titled 'Africa,' was made. And while that's hardly unique these days, with an increasingly large stream of American and European musicians having made their way to the African continent for recording projects of late, she thinks not enough of the results have been given a presence in the lands of their origin.
"Most people come to Africa and make the music and then take it back to France or America or wherever," Stern says. "They never take it back. I want to go back and take all these little colored cassettes. I signed a deal to make sure they get sold in market stalls all over Africa. I'm going to have a big concert promoting the cassette, do the African TV shows, all the things you do with a new record."
With her music released by her own company, Leni Stern Recordings, she can do whatever she wants, and her approach is as fluid and personal as the playing that marks her music throughout nearly 25 years in which she's earned acclaim both as an instrumentalist and, in recent years, as a singer-songwriter, as well. So, there her album will be, right alongside tapes and CDs (pirated in many cases, of course) by such regional leaders as Salif Keita, the late Ali Farka Toure and, from neighboring Senegal, Baaba Maal, not to mention such international icons/staples as Bob Marley. It's not so much that she thinks this is an economically fertile territory for her but something more meaningful to her. In some respects, it's a way to thank and recognize the local musicians with whom she collaborated on this album's weaving of her individualistic styles with African forms and sounds. One event on this trip is a concert celebrating the release of an album by Ami Sacko, a featured vocalist on Stern's album and the wife of Bassekou Kouyate, whose plucked ngoni playing is also highlighted on 'Africa.'
"Her album is being released, and I played guitar and sang on it," Stern says. "I'm going to be in her video and play at the concert for her. And I want to bring my record for everybody. African artists often never see the CDs they play on. I want them to see their names in print on the CD."
Stern knows that as a very blond, very white woman with a German accent and roots in instrumental jazz she may be a bit of an odd presence on the African promotional circuit. "It's not a piece of cake to walk into there as a blond girl playing guitar," she says with the easy, lively laugh that is a continuous presence in her rapid-fire conversation. "I am the shock of the century!"
It's not a new feeling to her -- she notes that even playing blues and jazz, as a German, she can "feel slightly like an impostor. But she says in her first visits to Africa in past years she was put at ease. "They asked me what I do and I say, 'I'm an electric guitarist and sing songs,' and they said, 'You're a griot!' "
And the local support system has been quite strong. Baaba Maal even had Stern join him onstage last year in a concert celebrating the end of the Ramadan holy month observance. "They want to make a point, that we are all citizens of the world," she says. "Baba has the phrase "Friends of Africa." He speaks about it on TV, says to stop blaming the white folks for what their parents did."
She's also thrilled to be part of the expanding network of American and European artists working in Africa. She notes her friendship with jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose recent 'Red Earth' album (the subject of an earlier Around the World column) was also recorded in Mali. So, undaunted, Stern is planning to play two Ramadan concerts this spring, one with Maal and one with Keita, and expects to make Africa a regular destination on her travel itinerary.
"My husband [New York jazz guitarist Mike Stern] last weekend flew to Italy for a gig, and I can fly to Dakar," she says. "Really, just the same distance and no harder to do. Promoters say you shouldn't do tours there because you don't make any money. But of course. I make a record and have an independent company, so it's easy for me to move the way the times are moving and do what I want. I can make videos in Africa and put them up on YouTube."
Meanwhile, music is not the only thing she's taking back to Africa. "I'm working with the organization Eyes on Africa," she says. "We've brought hundreds of eyeglasses to old people. I have bad eyes, so I have all these glasses. You see a lot of suffering and you can't help everybody. But helping Tuareg goatherds see their goats for the first time is a great thing. It's such a great way to visit -- you go and be a good guest. It's really very simple."