Bombino - Agadez

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By the time Niger’s Goumar “Bombino” Almoctar was all of 12 years old, he was already deeply enmeshed in the hardships of the Tuareg, the nomadic tribes who descended from the Berbers of North Africa and call the Sahara desert home. As his marginalized people rebelled against the governments of Mali and Niger, he was forced into exile in Algeria. It was there that he first picked up the guitar. Upon returning to Niger he found his chosen instrument banned by authorities who considered it a tool that fueled revolt. But Bombino’s spirit was empowered by both traditional music and Western rock and roll, and there was no turning back. His deciding to stick with his axe made him a popular symbol of Tuareg tenacity at home as well as a sought-after musician. He’s even recorded with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and guided Angelina Jolie on her visit to Niger a few years ago. Such esteemed company notwithstanding, Bombino’s most important non-African connection is Massachusetts-based filmmaker Ron Wyman, who, after hearing a cassette of Bombino’s music, sought out the guitarist and featured him in a documentary about the Tuareg.

Wyman is also in the producer’s chair for Agadez, Bombino’s international debut album that takes its name from the northern Niger town in which he was born (and where he acquired his nickname as the youngest member of a renowned local Tuareg band). Just as that desert burg has long been a convergence point for Saharan camel caravans, so too is Bombino’s music a meeting of influences from within his Tuareg mindset and beyond it. Comparisons to Tinariwen and Ali Farka Toure are a given; even the back cover of the CD makes them. While there are similarities, Bombino’s got his own thing going. His vocals are lighter and more reedy than his peers (with no call-and-response singing to be heard) and his instrumental backing, which includes additional guitar, bass and percussion, is often less prominent. So the real star is Bombino’s guitar playing, electric and acoustic, which ranges from subtle when in blues mode to tartly penetrating on the disc’s more rocking moments.

And Bombino knows how to balance the two. Even as you’re savoring pensive songs like “Adounia,” you’re anticipating the next point at which a hair-raising note or ringing riff is going to be unleashed. Not that Bombino is a compulsively showy player. At times he simply holds on to a rhythm or solos minimally for the sake of letting a particular melody run deep. The most notable exception is “Iyat Idounia Ayasahen,” a searing live jam that’s one of the best melds of blues, rock and Africa I’ve ever heard. I’d have to call it the best track on Agadez, but rest assured there are many close seconds. Bombino’s singing about things like peace, unity and his Tuareg identity, and he backs up his convictions with mightily nuanced guitar, a voice of experience and songs in which both are put to good use. This is an excellent album and an early contender for one of the year’s best. -Tom Orr

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