Album Reviews: Niger Sounds from Bombino and Etran Finatawa

Sometimes it’s the simplest words that stop you cold.  Soft-spoken Tuareg artist Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar proved this to me on a stiflingly hot summer evening at the 2012 Pickathon Festival backstage. I was talking to him for their post-performance video interviews, aided by French-Canadian guitarist Yann Falquet as translator, and I wanted to ask him about the violence and upheaval in Mali and Niger. For decades the Tuareg people have fought for independence in Northern Mali, and part of the reason behind the popularity of Tuareg music in the West (Tinariwen and Terakaft being two of the most popular bands) is the gritty, desert-guerrilla-fighters side of the story. Western audiences love this kind of rough African exoticism, and though I wouldn’t say the bands have expressly tried to exploit this, it’s certainly aided their path into the mainstream of American indie music. On the way to the interview, I asked Bombino directly if we could talk about what was happening in Mali. He told me he’d rather not. And I couldn’t blame him, of course. He’d recently lost two of the musicians in his band to military executions in his home country of Niger. The wounds were still fresh.

Today in 2013, Bombino has a new album, Nomad (Nonesuch Records), and the violence in Mali has slackened following military intervention from the French government. I’m tempted to think of this album as a new start, but that’s probably my own bias. One thing’s for sure: this album is his best yet. It’s a whirling, spinning tour through the almost-hypnotic desert blues of Tuareg guitarists. But it’s also a modern, global affair, since the album was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Auerbach’s decision to let the rough, informal nature of the original music shine through (Tuareg music is campfire music, so there’s a great community feeling to it) was inspired. He adds his own touches, of course, and the album feels more fuzzed-out and amplified than Bombino’s previous work, but that just makes it more fun. There are still the signature spindle-whorl guitar lines of “Zigzan,” but the beats are harder here as in opening burner “Amidinine,” which rolls like a desert sandstorm. “Imuhar” sounds almost anthemic, with wave after wave of bass cascading underneath Bombino’s voice, which also sounds heavily filtered. It’s a kickass album, there’s no doubt about that, and it comes close to matching some of the energy of Bombino’s live show. Since he speaks almost no English, Bombino’s a quiet force of nature on stage, content to burn through endless hypnotic grooves without introduction. He loves to jam too, likely getting some of that from the informal jamming culture that fuels a lot of the Saharan desert blues music. Onstage at Pickathon, he welcomed Canadian roots rock whiz kids The Barr Brothers on stage for some extending jamming. On Nomad, this spirit of collaboration, born of the camps of the nomadic Tuareg, finds a home in the garage blues jams of The Black Keys to wonderful effect.

Speaking of the campfire element of Tuareg music, excellent Tuareg group Etran Finatawa will be releasing a new album, The Sahara Sessions, in July 2013 that’s the polar opposite of Bombino’s album. It’s entirely recorded from one late-night desert session under a tent in Niger. Friends wandered in on motorbikes, people laugh and chat in the background, and the music rolls happily along. Also from Niger, Etran Finatawa are made up of Tuareg and Wodaabe musicians, and though they feature the desert guitar of the Tuareg’s that’s familiar to us from artists like Bombino and Tinariwen, they also bring in the lesser-known vocal traditions of the Wodaabe, including an eerie and piercing high tenor singing voice. On The Sahara Sessions, the music is totally unpolished, wonderfully alive and vibrant. No studio trickery here, no jams with Western musicians, just a beautiful way to gather together in the desert night. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something really compelling about getting a glimpse into how this music is organically created. As wonderful as it is to see this music getting such mainstream attention (and hopefully supporting the artists’ livelihoods), without these informal jam sessions, the music wouldn’t have such a compelling heart. By stripping off every pretense, Etran Finatawa have taken the music back to a red-hot core as hot as the coals of their campfire. And that’s a beautiful thing.

But now I’m thinking back to that hot, starlit evening outside Portland last year. Sitting down to the Bombino interview at Pickathon, I couldn’t help myself and decided I had to know more about Mali and the Sahel’s massive upheaval and rebellion. Hunching close to Bombino to hear his responses (which were almost whispered to me), I asked him why it was that Tuareg music was so closely tied to rebellion. Why is this the central story of the music? He waited for a moment, then replied in his soft, soft voice, “Our music was here before the rebellion. It will be here afterwards too.” It was the simplest response, but also the most powerful. If all we take away from Bombino’s desert blues is the war wounds of a struggling people, that’s on us. There’s so much more to discover in this music. It’s time to start looking deeper.

If you want to hang out under the stars on a hot Portland afternoon at Pickathon like I did, the festival’s happening this year August 2, 3, and 4. KEXP will be streaming the festival live again and recording special acoustic sets with the artists.

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