After a ‘brief’ 25 hour delay in Morocco on his way from Niger, Bombino arrived in Woodstock, New York to record his new album at Applehead Studio with Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors). Applehead is a beautiful studio in a converted barn on farmland where goats, pigs, and other animals roam freely. The band stayed in a guest house a few steps away from the studio, and took turns making meals. Apart from a morning invasion of the guesthouse by a 700-pound pig, Applehead was the perfect atmosphere for Bombino and his group to create new music over the course of the 10 days they had there. Longstreth, meanwhile, proved to be a fantastic match for Bombino as this album’s producer. He has a deep respect for the Saharan music tradition and guided their sessions with a gentle but skilled hand.
Fans of Bombino and Tuareg music in general will notice a few remarkable innovations on this album. The first is the introduction of a new style Bombino is pioneering that he affectionally calls ‘Tuareggae’ – a sunny blend of Tuareg blues/rock with reggae one-drop and bounce. Another is the first-ever use of Western vocal harmonies in recorded Tuareg music, (due to Longstreth’s influence) which give the songs new depth and color. Finally, the band behind him is tighter and more energetic than ever before. The result is Bombino's best, most well-rounded, and groundbreaking album to date: Azel.
The word “Azel” has three meanings in Bombino's native Tamasheq language – first, it is the name of a small desert town just a few kilometers from where he grew up, in Agadez, Niger. His wife’s family is from Azel, and it is the site of the first and only Tuareg school in the country. Bombino has long held aspirations of developing a Tuareg community center and arts school in Agadez, so the town of Azel holds a special place in his heart. Second, the word azel means the roots or stems of a tree. This album is a reflection of Bombino’s unique place in Tuareg music where he at once honors the traditional roots of the music while also taking it into brand new territory, hence the roots and the stems. Finally, the word azel is also slang in Tamasheq, loosely the equivalent of ‘That’s my jam!’ in American English. The significance of that meaning should be instantly obvious to anyone who listens to this album.
A note from Dave Longstreth:
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 placeEveryone has left usThe world has evolvedAnd 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.