There is something inherently romantic about the music of the Tuareg people. From Saharan Africa they are part freedom fighters, part Nomadic herdsmen and part bluesmen. If you’re familiar with the most famous exponents of this music, Tinariwen, then you know what to expect. Deceptively loose sounding guitar riffs heavily tinged and steeped in the blues tradition laid down over a lolloping laid back groove. Vocals delivered in a higher register than their Western brothers, the occasional chanting and syncopated clapped rhythms all slowly and deliberately building up in blistering dervish. They don’t call this stuff desert blues for nothing.
Bombino is a part of this noble tradition and his own story follows the arc of these Nomads narrative. His first guitar came into his possession while, as a child, he and his family were living in Algeria forced into exile from their native Niger. Visiting relatives left the instrument behind as they returned to the front line of the Tuareg rebellion against the Niger government. Later in life he was forced into exile again as two of his band members were executed. Guitars were outlawed by the Niger government as they were seen to symbolise rebellion – not to trivialise matters but this is the type of political credentials that the public schooled punks of 70s Britain would’ve killed for. These boys quite literally lived with an Armalite in one hand and a Straocaster in the other.
But enough of the history lesson. All the ‘right-on’ political kudos in the world don’t amount to a whole hill of beans if the music ain’t up to scratch (I’m looking at you Manics). Nomad is Bombino’s second solo album and for this one he travelled to Nashville to work with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys fame. producer of last year’s Grammy winning Dr John album, Locked Down. So Dan’s a man who’s obviously got a thing for the roots, be they of the African, zydeco, rock or blues variety.
So what has the partnership brought to Bombino’s sound? The guitar is definitely rawer and amped up a notch or two but it still retains that Saharan sweetness that aficionados of the Tuareg sound have come to expect. There’s more of a blues vibe going down on tracks like ‘Niamey Jam’, with reedy Hammond organ stabs, snares drum popping a Bonham-esque beat and Bombino laying down a heavier guitar lick than anything you’d find on his previous solo album, Agadez. And like a plate of slowly cooked Saharan-American stew, it pretty damn tasty.
This being an album recorded in the mecca of all things Country & Western things have to get a little bit country too and Auerbach brings this flavour to ‘Imidiwan’ and ‘Tamiditine’. The country instrumentation adds nicely to Bombinos sound, complementing his playing and vocal styling but never diluting the essence. Bombino remains at the centre of the sound, the Western additions serving to highlight not hide his craft.
‘Tamiditine’ closes out the album and we’re fittingly treated to an outro of the grand old sound of a reverb heavy lap-steel ringing out over the grittier sandier blues like a vast azurian Nashville skyline magically transported over across the oceans to cover the scorched Saharan sands of the Tuareg. A fitting end to a cross-continental journey taken by two blues men from opposite sides of the world. A good entry point for those unfamiliar with the music of the Tuaregs’ and also one that the already converted should find rewarding too. Like I said at the top, there is something inherently romantic about this music and it would be all too easy to sweeten it up and dress it up in Laura Ingall’s Sunday best but Auerbach is no cultural tourist and, whilst he has added a new spice to the mix, the flavour is still authentic.