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She found her groove in Africa

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Leni Stern's geographic journey yields spiritual fruit.

December 01, 2007|Greg Burk | Special to The Times

Staging benefit concerts and adopting babies are great, but musician Leni Stern has her own way of spreading the vibration of Africa: She has become an African. The people of Mali have even given the Bavarian-born guitarist and singer-songwriter a little piece of land, because they want her to stay. She's lived there about half-time for more than two years, and she wants everybody to know she's not suffering.

"We all come from Africa; it's the birthplace of humankind," Stern says by phone from the New York City apartment she shares with her husband, guitarist Michael Stern. "When you go there, you feel like you're coming home."

Consequently, she says, "we have a lot of things that we owe Africa, so we try to raise money, and our televisions are filled with images of terrible things.

"Get rid of malaria, for crying out loud, and get some cheap medicine out there," she adds. That's all well and good, "but we have created an impression of Africa, that it's a dangerous place filled with hardship, everybody there is miserable and crying all the time. You have to be vaccinated to the max, you can't drink the water, and you better not step on the ground. Well, you know what? None of that is true.

"It doesn't mean that we have to stop sending money for medicine," she says, "but Africa is beautiful. Africa is fascinating. You have never been among a nicer people. They really make it your quest that you should be happy. The food -- oh my God, the only thing that's a disaster is that I keep gaining pounds."

Stern allied herself with another white person in her new home. Only this one happened to be black.

That would be the renegade Afro-pop singer Salif Keita, an African albino. The blond Stern, who plays at Cafe Metropol downtown tonight, met Keita in Mali while using his studio and soon found herself splitting time between her own music -- influenced by the many months she's spent among Mali's Tuareg tribe -- and Keita's band.

In October, when Stern played on Keita's recording of U2's "One," the odd juxtaposition looked like an alliance of exiles.

Stern left a German acting career in 1977 to become a jazz fusion player in the U.S., later leaving fusion too (and America, really). Keita, born into the aristocracy, bucked tradition to become a lowly musician.

Malians aren't sure how to regard Keita. "They all say he's a sorcerer and has special powers, because they have this belief that albinos are different," Stern says. "And they act around him with a mixture of devotion and hatred. It's a strange situation I have gotten myself into."

It's not the first time. Stern has traveled to such disparate destinations as India, Kenya and New Orleans -- not just as a tourist, but also as a seeker who wanted to steep herself in the local musical cultures, each of which has influenced her own work.

Asked about the source of her wandering spirit, Stern wonders if a childhood admonition didn't contain some truth. "Whenever I was misbehaving, my grandmother used to say, 'Young lady, when the Gypsies ran through town, out of the kindness of my heart I took you into the house. If you don't stop, I will give you back to them!' "

Stern's Malian residencies have run the longest of her post-New York affiliations. She's been living among the Tuareg, whose nomadic ways, following their camels, sheep and goats as they graze, have butted up against the ever tighter restrictions of modern sprawl. She has learned to play North African instruments such as the skin-stretched n'goni (guitar or banjo) and the pole-necked guimbri, a kind of bass.

Most important to Stern, she's made friends. There's smiling Ami Sacko, the woman whose warm, sliding incantation, rather than Stern's intimate, vibrating soprano, is the first voice heard on Stern's new album, "Africa." There's Bassekou Kouyate, Sacko's husband, whom Stern describes as the only musician his peers allow to break harmonic rules with his aggressive, full-toned n'goni plucking. There's Keita, challenger of convention, who enjoys offsetting his own distinctive onstage image with a band that may include a white woman or a dwarf.

The interpersonal roots add a lot to the richness of Stern's "Africa," which sounds like anything but the standard cut-and-paste "world" collab. The feel is light -- in the auditory, emotional and even visual senses -- but serious observations on genocide ("Childsoldier") and drought ("Aman Iman") drift through like dust. And spirits hover, as two of Stern's old friends, saxist Michael Brecker (who played on the album) and percussionist Don Alias, were alive when she started recording "Africa" about two years ago but not when she finished.

Stern has wrought a work of variety and complexity that could nevertheless be mistaken for background music because of its surface beauty.

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