To get a good idea of the feeling you get from Leni Stern’s latest foray into the realm of world music, Sabani, take a look at what she has to say in her note to her song “Papillon,” which has nothing to do with either Steve McQueen or escaping from Devil’s Island. She writes about a friend whose very sick wife had told him that if there were such a thing as reincarnation, she would like to come back as a butterfly (papillon, of course, means butterfly). Stern recounts how she met the friend in a New York restaurant to see how he was holding up, and when they left, she “collided” with a few butterflies that then began flying about her friend. “It happens a lot,” he assures her. An uncanny occurrence, to say the least, yet this is an apt illustration of the otherworldly quality that haunts much of the music on Sabani. Both music and lyrics have a quality that borders on the mystical.
Foregoing the larger ensembles of her earlier fusions of jazz and world music like her last, Sa Belle Belle Ba, the eight songs on Sabani (which means three) are all put in the hands of a trio. The performances are tight and lean, stripped down to raw essentials. Joining Stern, who plays the electric and acoustic guitar, the n’goni (a small African lute), the tiple (a small guitar) and does vocals, are Haruna Samake on camela n’goni and karignan (a ridged metal coil rubbed with a metal rod) and Mamadou Kone aka “Prince” who plays calabash, talking drum and shakers. Stern says they have played so often together that it comes “effortlessly,” adding, “I don’t know why I waited so long to record like this.” Together they manage an almost unique sound that eerily coats the familiar with the alien, just as her songs often coat the familiar English with foreign hooks and phrases.
Of the eight songs, two—”The Cat Stole the Moon” and “An Saba“—are instrumentals. The first refers to a Mali children’s version of Trick or Treat; the second means the three of us. The album opens with a brokenhearted lament, “Still Bleeding,” its lyrics including the line, “The memories that still are haunting me, are tearing me apart.” “Sorcerer” describes the magical world of the forest open to those who can talk to the spirits, someone who can throw stones for her to read her future so she can see. One remembers the story Stern told about the sorcerer in connection with her last album. “Like a Thief,” inspired by the gypsy stories of her childhood, works on a series of similes: love is like a “thief in the night, like fog that rises from the fields,” “like an undertow that grabs you.” It is a mystical force fraught with danger. “I Was Born” describes a hunger and a restlessness that no amount of possessions can satisfy. Born to a “universe of elegance,” you need someone to set you free. “Djanfa,” the last song on the album, features Malien singer Zoumana Tareta. The title she tells us she’s been betrayed.
All the songs on the album were written by Stern alone or in collaboration with the other members of the trio. They have the kind of poetic lyrics that demand to be listened to with some attention. In fact, one of the best things about this low-key trio ensemble’s music is that you can actually understand the words. It would be a real shame if you couldn’t.