Release Date: Apr 1, 2016
Record label: PTKF
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Azel is the second studio album recorded in the West by Tuareg Ifoghas guitarist, singer, and songwriter Bombino (Omara Moctar) and fifth overall. It stands in sharp contrast to 2013's Nomad, produced by Dan Auerbach. The earlier album placed Bombino's signature playing style -- directly descended from the Niger master Haja Bebe and informed by Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler -- inside a mélange of lap steel guitar, vibes, and a less syncopated rhythmic framework.
Patriotism may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but musical censorship runs close behind. Be it plantation owners confiscating the drums of African-American slaves, or Nazi propaganda snuffing out Yankee jazz degeneracy, musical expression remains a favorite soft target for dictators and reactionaries alike. And while failed attempts by the Taliban to ban all musical instruments from Afghan society have grabbed headlines, a more recent act of overt musical aggression came via the government of Niger’s desperate decree banning guitars among the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara, ostensibly to tamp down an ongoing insurgency/rebellion within Mali and Niger.
While interviewing Dirty Projectors for a profile in 2009—on the cusp of the release of Bitte Orca and their Malian guitar-meets-Mariah hit “Stillness Is the Move”—band leader Dave Longstreth enthused over a Saharan guitarist on the Sublime Frequencies label who went by the name Bombino. In the last six years, the Tuareg artist has continued to make inroads in the West, touring and recording Stateside, and his 2013 album Nomad found him in the studio with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. And now, Longstreth’s early admiration has come full circle, as he was tapped to record Bombino’s latest, Azel, in upstate New York.
The contemporary music of Taureg is impossible to separate from the historic and political struggles of the people who not only made the songs, but those it was made for. Bombino, one of Taureg's more recent acts to attract international recognition, has experienced this first hand, witnessing the Niger government's 2007 attempt to outlaw music (and the guitar in particular) to quash any chance of rebellion along with the execution of fellow musicians. Yet Bombino never turned his back on the instrument that gave his people hope and as a result terrified a government.
Bombino is a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Niger, with his own take on desert blues. He has a rock-star image and sets out to target indie-rock fans as well as African music devotees. There’s nothing wrong with that, as new fusion exponents from Songhoy Blues to Vieux Farka Touré have proved, and he’s a rousing live performer. But his recordings are far less exciting.
For his last record, 2013’s Nomad, Tuareg musician Bombino teamed up with Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, finding common ground in the overlap of his western guitar-influenced desert blues and Auerbach’s rootsy southern rock. This time, his choice of collaborator seems more intriguing; Dave Longstreth, of Brooklyn art rockers Dirty Projectors, has a reputation for framing African pop influences in unexpected ways. But the results are less surprising than you might imagine.
The sounds of the Sahara seem to be at their loudest in the Western, popular music-sphere at current. The startling ‘Tichumaren’ blues-rock of Tuareg bands such as Tinariwen is now a commonplace feature on festival bills, whilst Damon Albarn’s favourite Malians Songhoy Blues have just finished a packed US tour and were a key feature in Johanna Schwartz’ recent documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First. But as Schwartz’ powerful film shows, this crossover of music cultures is not simply a pleasing result of our hyper-globalised society, but because these North Africans have a solemn story to tell.
Back in 2013 this publication tagged Tuareg guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar’s eponymous group’s Dan Auerbach-produced album Nomad (Nonesuch) as one of the year’s best (in our annual best albums roundup), additionally noting how, on tour that year as Robert Plant’s opening act, “the North African group really showed American crowds what so-called ‘trance music’ was all about. No less so than on this major label release, a mesmerizing collection of moods and grooves. ” Since then, Bombino has moved over to indie label Partisan (presumably because it can devote more time and attention than Nonesuch, which is constantly juggling the demands of much larger artists), and it’s also lined up with Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth for production duties.
For his third studio album, Omara "Bombino" Moctar traveled from the desert of Niger in West Africa to a lush wooded farm and recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Impossible to say how the change of scenery affected the sessions, but you can't argue with the results. In the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg people, Bombino sings of love ("Inar") and life ("Naqqim Dagh Timshar"), and war and death ("Ashuhada"), all while his dizzying guitar work invokes an endless Saharan walkabout.