AZEL is out now on Partisan Records.

Produced by David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors.

A note from David:

Back in 2009, somebody gave me a dusty old iPod with a bunch of music from somebody called Omara Bombino Moctar on it.  It was an amazing collection of songs, half of them electric and the other acoustic, like Zep III and Bringing It All Back Home.  The electric parts were so ecstatically ragged and feverishly modal that it felt like an exorcism; the guitar amp sounded like a blown-out Peavey cab that somebody had knifed.  The acoustic parts were so delicately reflective and luminescent that they felt like stargazing.  I was intrigued by this range, and more than that, I was intrigued by what this guitar seemed to be saying.  The tone, alternately strident and melancholic, poetic and acrobatic and sometimes almost witty, was suffused with a point of view: longing and hope in a tug-of-war.

I finally met Bombino last fall, walking into the sprawling barn studio in upstate New York where we’d record Bombino’s third studio album, Azel.  There he was, relaxing on the couch, conversing in Tamasheq with his bandmates behind a barely perceptible smile.  He was wearing a blue bubu, the traditional Tuareg formal attire, and bobbing his head along to the playback from studio’s stately Genelecs.  Though he speaks Tamasheq, Arabic and French, he rarely speaks at all. Instead, he plays the guitar.

And play, by Jove, he does. Bombino rarely does more than one or two takes, because he doesn’t need to.  I’ve seen him lay down a six-minute acoustic improvisation, and then double-track it instantly and flawlessly, with no punches.  His playing is effortless, endless.  His playing is technical — virtuoso is the right word — but the technique isn’t what you notice about it: what you notice is the feeling, and the tone.  It feels punk that way.

According to his bandmate and friend Koutana, who plays percussion and sings backup in Bombino’s five-piece band, the sound of the guitar arrived in Tuareg lands in Niger and Mali from an Algerian refugee camp, via a revolutionary cassette in 1982.  Koutana, who was there, says that that cassette sent shock waves through the Tuareg communities, that both the raw sound of the guitar, and its status as a political change agent — allied with messages of revolution and self-determination — made a strong impact on the nomadic Tuareg.  Soon electric guitars started showing up in the desert.  The Tuareg adapted the centuries-old techniques they had developed on the ngoni, a traditional lute, and the imzad, a one-stringed bowed instrument, to the amplified electric guitars.  They crossed them with the sounds of the American and British bands they had heard and loved: Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits. A new Tuareg tradition — Tichumaren, the desert blues — emerged.

Tichumaren, like the blues or the Portuguese fado, is as much a feeling as it is a distinct musical style.  Koutana translates for me some of the lyrics of Naqqim Dagh Timshar, the album’s closing track and its emotional keystone:

We sit in an abandoned place
Everyone has left us
The world has evolved
And we’ve been abandoned.

The whole world has evolved—
       Why haven’t we?

It’s in Tamasheq, of course, but you don’t need a translation to understand what Bombino’s singing about.

BBC radio interview transcription

Niger's 'Tuareggae' Star - Bombino - talks to the BBC about his home

This album is about telling the story of Bombino and how I evolved through my music tours around the world. It’s about what I have learned over the years, playing with other people, performing here and there. As it is really the result of all this kind of apprenticeship and has been shaped by friends and people I have met along the way.

The music is interesting and the direction you’re taking, a mix of ‘Tuareg’ and Reggae music. I think you call it ‘Tuareggae.' Do you want to tell a bit more about that?

I had this desire for a long time. When I look at my people who live in the desert, they have nothing to do with Reggae culture. But still, they listen to the Reggae music simply because they like it. They relate to it. And it’s a music that will never age. So I thought I might try and integrate Reggae and mix it with traditional styles from the desert such as Tende or Takamba.

I’ve seen that you said that your music captures the spirit of resistance and rebellion. Is that still the case today?

Yes, but in a specific way.  For me, safeguarding peace is a form of rebellion in itself. Take a look at the geography of this region. I am from Niger and I was born there. But I have brothers in Libya, cousins in Mali and as far as Tamanrasset in Algeria. So we are spread between these four countries. But Tuaregs in Niger support a democratic change, which is something new. We even have a Tuareg prime minister. So for me, that’s an example of what the struggle can achieve.  Even if we don’t have a country named after the Tuareg people, we do care about our regions, about our origins.  

What do you think the future holds for the Tuareg community split as it is between several countries?

I am from Agadez in the north and at a personal level, I try to see how I can contribute to the community as an artist by helping relatives get a job or things like that and these are the sort of things we need. We don’t need people to tell us to go on war or take up a new struggle. We are in 2016 and if Tuaregs must fight, they should do it in a spirit of freedom and without violence.

Several times there have been so called ‘Tuareg rebellions’ or uprising and several times when you’ve been displaced. Is that always in the back of your mind that it could happen again one day?

I hope not, at least in Niger. My country has been peaceful now for ten years. And when I look at what is going on in Mali or in Libya, I thank God. History tells us that the Tuaregs have been there for very long time. But countries have been created with huge swaths of deserts that can’t be controlled. Look at Mali for example, with that massive space in the north and population concentrated in the south. Niger is like that too. But fortunately in Niger, we have had this dialogue between Niamey in the south and the Tuaregs, who know the desert well and this has helped keep peace. And with peace, everything is possible and this is what Niger is all about.