New York based guitarist and singer/songwriter Leni Stern continues her quest to amalgamate the sounds of West Africa with the melting pot of American music with her latest CD, SMOKE, NO FIRE. The collection of ten tunes was completed in Mali this year in the midst of political turmoil in the region. Stern has this to say about the new release, “the album was mostly written during trips to Mali, and as we know, this has been a very trying year in Western Africa. Much of the writing and recording was done when I was stuck in Bamako during the government coup d’etat, in between curfews, waiting for the airport to reopen, and in the care of my wonderful Malian family. I hope that the album speaks to you of my love of this place and shows the strength of a community I support, as it struggles through this difficult time in history.”
Stern is joined by a wonderful group of traditional West African musicians to surround her graceful, pure singing voice and electric guitar playing. The opening track, “Djarabi” (My Love), establishes the theme of the release with hand percussion, vocal harmony, mesmerizing ostinatos from authentic West African instruments string and Bambara lyrics. In fact the entire album effortlessly flows between English and Bambara vocals. “Smoke, No Fire” has lyrics that address the emotions of curfews and distress. The call and response between Stern’s voice, guitar, vocal harmony and a young man rapping in Bambara is very effective in telling a musical story of cross cultural beauty.
Stern’s musical rapport with Harouna Samake and his playing of the kamele n’goni (young man’s harp) is a key feature of this recording and the symbiotic relationship runs deep in the musical pulse. “Yiribi (tall tree)” has a delightful rubato intro duet between the two musicians that clearly displays their respect for one another. Another highlight is “Tou Samake,” Samake’s playing is stellar.
SMOKE, NO FIRE is a superb set of songs that combines African folk sounds with the sounds of blues, jazz and American folk. Stern’s guitar solo on “Lomeko (Find me an angel),” certainly contains the language and technique associated with jazz. The feeling is playful, jazz rubbing up against African folk like old friends. On “Dji Lama (water),” the instrumental, “Frossira (Country Road),” ends the set with violin, Stern’s thoughtful guitar and Samake’s kamele n’ngoni. Stern and her ensemble of guests create a soundtrack for modern West Africa as interpreted by the heart and ears of a creative musician from the musical mecca of New York. Stern’s vision of an exchange of ideas of old and new traditions with timeless messages and grooves is a welcome addition to the musical canon of life.
Tracks: Djarabi (My Love); Winter (Samia); Smoke, No Fire; Yiriba (Tall Tree); Lomeko (Find Me an Angel); Tou Samake; Awn Te Kalo Ye (so Far, so Fast); Dji Lama (Water); Behin Mounou Mounou (Big Head); Frossira (Country Road).
Personnel: Leni Stern: guitar,n’goni, voice; Woroferela Moden: rap, voice; Haruna Samake: camela, n’goni; Ami Sacko: voice; Mamadou Ba: bass; Alioune Faye: djembe; Kofo: talking drum; Abou Cisse: voice; Jami Sacko: backing vocals; Mamadou Kone: calabash; Ouba Sacko: n’goni, n’goni bass; Jelli Ba Diabate: doun doun; Madou Djembe: djembe; Mamadou Kone: calabash; Esperanza Spalding: bass (2); Leo Genovese: accordion, synthesizer; Mike Stern: guitar solo (5); Ben Holmes: trumpet; Karen Waltuch: viola.
H. Allen Williams
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