I try to keep up with Leni Stern and write a little about her a couple of times a year, because she’s one of the few humans who, in a world of poison, feeds us healthful stuff. War can’t persist around her; it’s been documented that a single L.S. tune can skew the air-to-propellant ratio in an armored vehicle’s fuel-injection system by as much as 88 percent within a 1.2-kilometer radius (Scientific American, May 2006). So if you go see her tonight at Café Metropol (923 E. Third St., L.A., 8 p.m., 213-613-1537), leave the Hummer behind. In additon to her electric guitar and voice, she’s bringing the incredible percussionist-stringman Brahim Fribgane, as well as the mightily flexible bassist Edwin Livingston.
Ms. Stern (wife of guitarist Michael Stern, who’s nommed for a Grammy for the fourth time this year) continues to tilt her singing/songwriting in an African direction with her new EP Alu Maye, out next month on her own label. Those who dug her fusioneering axwomanship in the ‘80s and ‘90s will find she can still comb a tarantula’s hair with her six-string subtlety. Those like me who had their ears opened by the heart and depth of her post-millennial vocal balladry should know that facet continues to shine. Now Stern builds on the light grooves, open spaces and desert melancholy that emerged on last year’s Love Comes Quietly, and somehow or other, she’s stopping time.
Dipping repeatedly into Alu Maye, I thought the songs were all about four minutes long. So when I looked and saw that four out of five measured five to twelve minutes, I was a little shook. When I focused more tightly on the very complex yet understated rhythms of “Ousmane,” its seven minutes seemed more like fifteen (in a good way). “Ife Ta Niye” starts at a lazy camel’s pace and imperceptibly builds into an Afro-reggae trot; hyperspeed solos by Michael Stern and the late Michael Brecker fit in with surprising aptness. Throughout, the Malian musicians (Bassekou Kouyate, Ami Sacko, Haruna Samake et al.) with whom L.S. has spent so much time over the last couple of years create an atmosphere both strange and hospitable.
Last week when I was in New York (Ms. Stern’s nominal “home”), the globe-scouring guitar goddess ran me through some of the recent experiences of her last seven weeks in Mali. It sounded like a movie.
Imagine Stern and friends flying over the desert dunes between destinations in their off-road vehicle, everybody banging head to roof when they hit a trough. Imagine the amazed reception when locals first encountered a woman traveling alone with an electric guitar. (Stern needed to adopt native garb in many situations, both to conform with local custom and to keep the dust out of her nose.) Imagine the puzzlement of the American woman who received a telephonic request to replace the credit card Stern lost at a river crossing. (“You lost it where? Timbuktu? How do you spell that?”)
The nomadic Tuareg tribespeople with whom Stern studies and plays travel with camels, sheep, goats, some cows, looking for the sparse vegetation the animals eat.
“Their culture will soon disappear,” says Stern quietly. Global warming means the desert becomes ever more inhospitable, and international investment in Mali’s newly discovered oil skews the population in ever more urban directions.
While in Africa, Stern went through withdrawal from her New York rhythms. But when it was time for her to return for scheduled gigs, she didn’t know how she would readjust to Manhattan frenzy. With the Tuareg, “There isn’t anything to do, you just sit there and look at the stars and the sunset. They’re very philosophical.”
Another adjustment was the music. “African music has a different form -- riffs come in out of the blue!” The Tuareg, for their part, wonder why Westerners can’t decide what key to play in. “They think we’re not happy with the key” -- that’s the only reason they can imagine changing chords. And changing rhythms is even worse: “‘Why destroy what we have built?’ After two months, I’ve got to say, I see their point. We don’t know how to build grooves the way they build grooves, into this polyrhythmic, marvelous structure that’s like a kaleidoscope.”
And Stern found the locals appreciative. “The mayor gave my band a rice field, and a parcel to build a house on. It was their way of saying, ‘We want you here. We want you to stay here!’ When did anybody in New York give me a rice field for a good performance?”
In honor of the recording she did, Stern followed the practice of sanctioning the sacrifice of a sheep to feed the poor. “You feel goodwill in the neighborhood, because you’re the one that killed the sheep and fed everybody.”
Stern is not one who requires many physical comforts, and as a cancer survivor, she has learned to count her blessings. But recently she started noticing that “People who complain live forever. So I’m taking up hypochondria, because I wish to be 100 years old. It will take me at least that long to accomplish the musical goals that I’ve set for myself.”