Omara Moctar is on stage at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater to close the annual Africa Now festival. But, before the show the MC insists on asking him some questions through a translator. Moctar is soft-spoken and the interview feels stilted and awkward as he patiently answers questions he’s undoubtedly heard over and over again: “Where are you from?” “Agadez, Niger.” “Who are the Tuareg?” “We are a nomadic people from the Sahara.” And it stutters on.
The MC and the translator finally leave the stage and any semblance of shyness shatters as the four-piece band launches into “Akhar Zaman (This Moment),” the opening track off his new album Azel. Moctar is instantly transformed into the persona he’s better known as: Bombino, a guitar innovator who brings centuries of history, tradition, and culture to global ears through the crunch of a guitar amp. The song starts with a spaced-out guitar lick before the drums kick the band into a frenetic triplet rhythm propelled by Bombino’s repeated guitar lines. Bombino’s guitar sings, his voice—with the sandy, sunbaked quality of the desert he calls home—rings out and the Apollo erupts.
Bombino, one of the latest phenomenon out of the Saharan Tuareg community’s tishoumaren (often called “desert blues”) scene stopped at the Apollo just six days before the release of Azel and it’s immediately obvious that the album was recorded with a live show in mind. Besides some overdubbed vocal lines and layered guitars, the album sounds like a series of fierce one-takes. This is an album that puts everything on display without hiding behind production tricks that are too often used to make performers of “world music” more palatable to the Western ear.
In the past, Bombino has been guilty of falling into that trap as well. His previous album, Nomad (2013), although a worthy album in its own right, carries far too heavy a stamp from Dan Auerbach, its producer. The same Tuareg melodies are there, building a net for the poetry that drives Bombino’s songwriting, but it all sounds much too like Auerbach’s own outfit The Black Keys, obscuring the singularity of Bombino’s sound. On Azel, producer Dave Longstreth (of Dirty Projectors) takes a back seat. Limiting his contributions to touches like the Western-style vocal harmonies that come in now and then, he never threatens to overpower the identity of the album.
Azel is Bombino unleashed and unafraid to experiment, but with an obvious awareness of the musical landscape he inhabits. The hypnotic grooves of his Tuareg forbearers Tinariwen shine through in “Timidiwa (Friendship),” and nods to the great Ali Farka Touré are present throughout, especially on the closing meditation of “Naqqim Dagh Timshar (We Are Left In This Abandoned Place)”. But this album is also the sound of an artist confident in his own identity and ability to innovate.
That innovation is heard in the debut of a style Bombino calls “Tuareggae”—a healthy dose of Jamaican one-drop rhythms and an emphasis on repeated guitar strokes on the off-beats—most evident on album standout“Timtar (Memories).” While he brings in elements of reggae into a style already influenced by blues, psychedelic rock, and most importantly the echoes of an ancient culture, Bombino also still makes references to guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix, whom he first heard as a young boy in Niger. The climax of the album occurs about four minutes into “Iyat Ninhay / Jaguar (A Great Desert I Saw)” when one of the record’s many guitar solos breaks ranks and turns into an all-out freak-out, with a repeated motif that grows and grows, until it drops out of nowhere, snapping the listener out of a desert dream world and back into a more mundane reality.
Bombino’s personal history, like that of Tinariwen, Terakaft, and others, mirrors the Tuareg’s long history of upheaval and resistance. He’s had to flee violence two separate times in his life—first at the age of ten when he and his family crossed the border to Algeria after the first Tuareg Rebellion, and then again in 2007 when a second Tuareg Rebellion swept the region. Since then, even as he’s toured the world, he’s watched his home region succumb to instability that more than once saw jihadists ban music. Because of this troubled past, many understand Tuareg music as inherently political: its very existence is an act of resistance. But Bombino says his lyrics are not politically-charged and while the inclusion of “Iyat Ninhay,” which builds off a traditional Tuareg war-time song, makes us question the claim, many of the lyrics do focus instead on unrequited love, life in the desert, and the constant struggle between tradition and modernity.
While in his home country of Niger, days before leaving on a series of tours around the world, Bombino took a moment to speak to Okayafrica about the new album, the relationship between Tuareg music and politics, and his own evolution as an artist. Read our conversation below.
First of all, congratulations on the new record. Can you tell me a bit about the recording process? How did you get connected with Dave Longstreth?
Bombino: Woodstock is a beautiful place, very green and relaxed. It is the opposite of New York City. For us, it was a perfect place to record because we could really feel comfortable and free from distractions, so the music was able to simply pour out naturally. Applehead is a great, great studio. Very cool guys that run that place.
We recorded the album like we would play a live concert, with everyone playing all at once in one room. Then I would add vocals and guitar solos, then we would add the other vocals, some percussion, maybe some organ.
Working with Dave was a great experience. Dave is a very cool and relaxed guy. He was not dominant as a producer. Instead he would be patient and wait for us to do something and then he would give his opinion or a little push in one direction or another. With Dave the music was able to be natural and pure, and he would add a little color or shape here or there.
Applehead Studio is a long way from home—how do you think being so far away affected the sound of the record, when the music is so rooted in a specific place?
To me it was not a problem that we recorded the album in a place that is so different from Niger, from the desert, where I wrote most of the material for the album. My band and I have been playing most of these songs live for some months already if not even years. It was simply the best way to put these songs, already fully formed, on to an album.
How did the songs develop throughout the recording process?
In the studio, we added just a few different things that I had not planned. Dave [Longstreth] played organ on some songs, and we added some Western harmonies. That was a challenge for us because Tuareg music does not have harmonies like this. Koutana (the backup singer on the album) really worked hard to record what Dave wanted from him. Meanwhile the rest of us had some good laughs watching him.
There’s a new sonic direction explored on this record that you call “Tuareggae.” I can really hear that reggae-influence on songs like “Iwaranagh” and “Timtar”? How did that style develop?
This is a style that I have been developing in my concerts over the past two or three years. I have always loved reggae, that rhythm inspires me. So I started to introduce this into one of my songs and I enjoyed how it sounded live, so I began to do it more and more. The style developed very naturally. It was not something I decided we should try, rather it was something that just happened so we continued to let it grow as part of my repertoire.
You’re in Niger right now. Obviously, the entire region has undergone a lot of upheaval in the past few years. How is the situation for you, your band, your family and the Tuareg people now?
I am happy to say that there have been many big, positive changes in Niger since the end of the last rebellion. Today our society is much more open and peaceful than it was before the last rebellion. The Tuareg community is integrated now in a new and more profound way with the rest of Niger. We have Tuareg politicians and more Tuareg artists and businessmen. I am very proud of my country at this moment. Of course there are still many problems for the Tuareg but there is a new confidence that things will improve. For me and my band, things are good right now.
How did the political situation in Niger, Mali and the rest of the region influence the lyrical content of your songs? Is there a theme throughout the record?
I did not discuss the political problems of the Sahel in my lyrics for this album. There is a song from a historic Tuareg revolution that I did my own adaptation for called “Iyat Ninhay,” but its presence on the album is not related to the situation in the Sahel right now. I do not like to be a political figure. I wish to be a symbol for peace and solidarity amongst all people.
Many people equate Tuareg music with political resistance? Do you think all Tuareg music is necessarily political?
I understand that people outside the Tuareg community would feel that way, because music has played an important role in Tuareg history and the rebellions that have occurred. But to me and to Tuareg people in general, I think, there is a difference between our traditional music, our political music, party music, our music sung for the love of a woman or your friends or your family. Not all Tuareg music has this serious political character.
Your musical style has evolved pretty dramatically over the years. How much of these new sounds come from all the traveling you’ve been doing and the other musicians you’re meeting around the world? In terms of the rest of the Tuareg “desert blues” community, do you feel like there’s a sense of friendly competition between you and bands like Tinariwen or Terakaft at all?
I consider the changes in style from Agadez to Nomad to Azel to be the natural result of my development as an artist. I did not plan to do this or that before any of the albums, I just played the songs I wanted to record in the style I had become accustomed to playing them in. So it is like taking a photograph of my career at one point in time and another. I feel that I am getting stronger and stronger as a guitarist, as a bandleader, as a songwriter, so all of this will lead to an evolution in my style.
Of course, there is also some influence from the producers. Dan wanted to make a big rock sound and Dave wanted to develop the harmonies. But the overall sound, that is just a picture of where I was when the album was recorded. Naturally, touring around the world for years will have an effect on any artist. The world is a much bigger place to me now than it was when I recorded Agadez. I have had many more experiences with many different types of people and musicians, and of course this will contribute to my music. As for the Tuareg community, I think maybe some people think there is competition, but to me we are all a part of the same movement. The Tuareg community is very small relative to the world and we must support each other if we wish to be heard and to be appreciated by people outside of Africa.
Do you experience any criticism from more traditional-minded people in the Tuareg community who maybe think you have strayed from the more traditional Tuareg sounds
Sure, I think there will always be elders that do not like things to change, but I think even these people who prefer traditional music understand that the world has changed and that one must embrace modernity or be left behind. To be honest I do not hear criticism from the older generation, really, but I imagine that it exists in private.
Are there any Tuareg bands or musicians that we in the United States may not have heard yet that you have been listening to lately?
There is an artist named Abdallah Oumbadougou who has a group called Desert Rebel. I do one of his songs (“Iyat Ninhay”) on Azel. He is a great, important figure in Tuareg music but I have noticed that he is not really known in Europe or in the USA.
What’s next for you? How long will you be touring?
I will be touring until I die (laughs). Touring this year will be more or less continuous until November or December, then I will take a few months to rest at home and see my family properly. This is how my life has become, and it is becoming normal for us. I have a very rare opportunity to earn money for my family while doing something important for the Tuareg people and for my country, so even though it is often difficult I will do this for as long as I can.
Bombino’s new album ‘Azel’ is out April 1 on Partisan Records.