This article was first published at Blogcritics
I guess the first time I really got interested in the fusion of the pop music aesthetic with world music was back in the eighties when Paul Simon resurrected himself with his award winning Graceland album. Certainly there had been world music influences in some of Simon's earlier music, "Mother and Child Reunion" for example, but the new album suggested a commitment beyond a single here and there. Collaborating with musical groups like Ladyship Black Mambazo and Los Lobos, he combined multicultural rhythms with his trademark poetic lyrics to produce gems like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints." The Rhythm of the Saints which followed never had the same success, but it did show a similar cultural outreach.
There is a lot about Leni Stern's new CD Sa Belle Belle Ba that reminds me of Simon's landmark album. She comes to world music with a successful resume as a jazz guitarist and infuses track after track with swinging guitar riffs and mellow highlights. Listen to the twanging guitar punctuating the vocal on "Nan Jeya" and the electrical improvisation on "Born Bad." There is also some nice improvisation on the kora (a 21 string West African lute like instrument) by Yakouba Sissoko in the Arabic flavored "Yakhai Bi Khali" and the lilting "Souma Chamon." She makes it her business to collaborate with authentic voices. Guest musicians include Haruna Samake, Ami Sacko, Bouba Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate and Zoumana Tareta. They join Stern in chorus and with individual solo work, most often providing an African counterpoint to her English lyrics. For example listen to the choral background to the bluesy "Smoke's Risin'." It is unfortunate that individual solo work isn't always credited in the album notes.
Her English lyrics range from the deceptive simplicity of "Souma Chamon" and "Sera" to the poetic eloquence of "Now I Close My Heart" that begs comparison with Simon at his best. There is a prayer like quality to her paean to Africa the motherland of humanity, "Farafina Cadi." She combines English lyrics with African and Arabic lyrics, in a sense illustrating the need to go beyond linguistic barriers and find the humanity that fills us all. In the same way her fusion of musical genres symbolizes her desire for cultural fusion. So, for example, there is the combination of traditional African chants with rap on the title song, "Sa Belle Belle Ba." She melds jazzy blues and a swinging electric guitar solo to a backdrop of African rhythms in "Born Bad."
Leni Stern has explained that the title of her new CD is a warning about the dangers of snakes, both the reptilian and the two legged variety. "Sa" means snake in what I assume is Bambara the official language of Mali. "Ba" means big, and "belle," very. The world, it seems, is filled with very big snakes, and we would do best to be on our guard. In notes provided in the promotional material for the album, Stern tells a lengthy story about how she was encouraged by singer Ami Sacko to go to see particularly powerful sorcerer to assure the success of their work on the album. The sorcerer advised that she needed to ride a wild white horse every morning for seven days. She took the advice and one day she discovered a boa constrictor near the sorcerer's home. She became frightened until she was assured that the snake was dead. It was then that she began writing the song, "the image of the snake," she says, "etched" in her mind. The story is another testament to Stern's commitment to cross cultural pollination: a passion that is the theme of her album.
Jazz, folk, blues, rock, pop, rap, world music—pick your poison; it's all there on Leni Stern's new CD, Sa Belle Belle Ba. Whether she's singing in Arabic or Bambara or riffing on the electric guitar, Stern's work is emblematic of the South by Southwest World Music Festival motto: "all music is world music." Her songs bridge languages. Her CD is an eclectic collection of fused musical styles and genres. Leni Stern is all music.