Artist’s Choice: Leni Stern on West African Music

The guitarist and honorary griot pays tribute to Salif Keita, Youssou N'Dour, and more in this playlist

Leni Stern
Leni Stern (photo: Sandrine Lee)

I owe an enormous gratitude to West Africa and all of the musicians that I’ve had the honor of playing with; they have been my teachers and still are. I was always interested in finding out where the blues came from and everybody always said that it came from Africa, but nobody explained to me exactly how. I feel very lucky that I was able to immerse myself in that culture as deeply as I have and that I’ve been accepted as an honorary griot. What qualifies you to be a griot is the ability to improvise and to express emotion and tell a story. I hope people who listen to this music enjoy it as much as I do.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Artist’s Choice:

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba
“Segu Blue (Poyi)”
Segu Blue (Outhere, 2007)

“Segu Blue (Poyi)” is a very important blues song. According to Lucy Duran, a musicologist and producer from London, “Poyi” was the song that was played when slaves were sold. According to her, they were given a choice whether to die or go into slavery. This song was the last thing they heard, and I think it has every blues lick in it you’d ever need if you’re a musician. Bassekou goes out on stage and plays it with the ngoni [a West African stringed instrument related to the banjo]. On this version the band joins him, but I heard him play that by himself. It’s the whole history of the blues.

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba
“Lament for Ali Farka”
Segu Blue (Outhere, 2007)

Ali Farka Toure brought West African music to America. That’s why I think he’s important. And he collaborated with Ry Cooder, who opened my eyes to the sound of West Africa. Ry, like Taj Mahal, looked for the sources of the blues. “Lament for Ali Farka” sounds very jazzy to me. Also it’s an example of the vocal soloing of Bassekou’s wife, the great Malian griot Ami Sacko. It’s like slam poetry. It’s done on the spot. No two versions of a song are the same.

Afel Bocoum & Alkibar
“Ali Farka”
Niger (Contre Jour, 2006)

This is one of my favorite songs. The violinist on this is Hassey Saré. I wanted to introduce people to the improvisation of the one-string violin—and the sound of the kora [West African harp]. We talk a lot in jazz about question and response. It’s very obvious in this song, and it’s easy to see how it’s done in Africa.

Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
“Mali Sadio”
Boulevard de l’Independance (World Circuit, 2006)

In African music, like in jazz, there are standards. “Mali Sadio” is a standard. It’s been sung since the Sundiata Keita empire [in Mali, circa 13th century]. The hippopotamus was the favorite animal of the Mandinka kings, and “Mali Sadio” is a story about a hippopotamus. It’s the “Autumn Leaves” or the “Giant Steps” of West Africa. This is all improvisation.

Salif Keita
“Papa”
La Différence (EmArcy/Universal, 2010)

Salif Keita is the golden voice. I had the good luck of playing in his band, and if I know anything about singing, I learned it from watching him sing. There’s a little riffing at the end, but mainly he just sings in that beautiful West African style. He has inspired many people. Remember when Joe Zawinul used to have that vocoder and he would sing? I always thought he sounded like Salif. I told him, “You sound like Salif,” and he said, “No, no, no. Salif sounds like me!”

Joe Zawinul & the Zawinul Syndicate
“Bimoya”
World Tour (Zebra, 1998)

Joe Zawinul and Weather Report were such a huge influence on my entire generation—him and Wayne Shorter. Also, his involvement with world music definitely had a big influence on me. I was a huge fan of his records and the way he had Indian and African music in there and incorporated all that, and also his use of percussion totally opened my mind to a new world of sound. “Bimoya” is a good example of the wonderful madness that his band was: all the percussion, with him doing the Salif on the vocoder.

Youssou N’Dour
“Without a Smile (Same)”
The Guide (Wommat) (Columbia, 1994)                  

Youssou is also a griot, and he improvises; he makes up the words and the melody. This was one of the first West African collaborations with a jazz musician: Branford Marsalis’ beautiful soprano solo. [The music is] typical for Senegal. I now have a band with two musicians from Senegal and I’ve really explored that part of West African music. Something that all these tracks have in common is the rhythmic content.

Hank Jones Meets Cheick-Tidiane Seck and the Mandinkas
“Tounia Kanibala”
Sarala (Verve, 1995)

Cheick-Tidiane Seck is a great arranger—he arranged Dee Dee Bridgewater’s African record [Red Earth, 2007]. I had the good fortune of performing at a later version of [Mali’s] Festival in the Desert, and we played together for Salif Keita. We became good friends, and he told me about this record that nobody knew about with Hank Jones. I said, “Elvin’s brother? That Hank Jones?” On the track you hear the balafon, the ngoni, and myriad percussion, and I think Cheick is playing organ and Hank is playing piano.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Leni Stern

Leni Stern is a guitarist and vocalist who has released nearly 20 albums as a leader since 1986. In 2005, she was invited to perform at the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu, Mali. There she met Bassekou Kouyate and dove headfirst into the traditions of West African guitar and, later, the ngoni. Stern’s most recent release is 3, a collaboration with Mamadou Ba and Alioune Faye. Visit lenistern.com for more information.