Leni Stern Finds a Universe of Rhythm

Katie Gibson
August 16, 2019

The jazz guitarist and Berklee alumna performed with her band and talked with students about working with West African rhythms.

Leni Stern on stage during a guitar clinic
Leni Stern performing with her band
Leni Stern plays guitar during her clinic at the Berklee Performance Center.
Stern performs with bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist Alioune Faye.
Image by Adam Amir Hamzah
Image by Adam Amir Hamzah

As part of Berklee’s weeklong Guitar Sessions intensive, Leni Stern ’80 gave a clinic and performance with pianist Leo Genovese and two other musicians. She began by inviting audience members to clap along with several different African beats. After each extended jam, Stern fielded questions from the audience. “Ask me something!” she urged. 

Stern moved seamlessly from guitar to calabash drum and back again several times during the session. A native of Germany and an accomplished jazz musician, she has spent the past decade-plus exploring West African guitar and drum traditions. “Sometimes I take the rhythm and I just put a melody to it,” she said of experimenting with African beats. “All these rhythms are so unusual, so different from what we hear in the West.”

Encouraging students to practice their rhythm skills, Stern said she wished she’d done more of that as a student at Berklee. “I went down to practice my rhythm three times a week,” she said. “I should have gone every day!” She spoke about “a whole universe of rhythm,” adding, “As a guitarist, I used to think rhythm was boring, compared to melody and harmony. But it’s not!”

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