Aug 6, 2021

Bombino - Nomad


The meeting of western rock stars and non-western musicians is so fraught with potential pitfalls, it's a wonder any decent records ever come of it at all. Cross-pollination is hampered by gaps in language, by preconceptions (on both sides), by label demands for a marketable product, by the suspicion that someone might be using someone, or that the wider audience being sought might be put off by music too far off their wavelengths. The opposite fear is true too: that the cognoscenti will be alienated by watered-down fusions.

Fortunately, these are not issues that besmirch Nomad, the third album by Omara "Bombino" Moctar – a member of the Tuareg Ifoghas clan, usually based in Agadez, Niger – overmuch. It was recorded respectfully, and predominantly live, by Dan Auerbach, leader of the hugely successful Black Keys, in his Nashville studio. He could have made an ugly hash of it, but, as with his previous work with Dr John, Auerbach has proved once again to be a very sympathetic arranger, adding crunch and a little local southern sweetness to Bombino's music.

One of the most easily exportable world sounds of recent times has been the desert blues of the Tuareg people of north and north-west Africa. This rolling, 1,000-yard-stare music is not hard on the western ear; its incandescent licks and fluid grooves would set most rock types to weeping. Nomad's opener, Amidinine, has everything – perpetual motion, a chanted chorus, rocked-up drums and flashes of bluesy brilliance. Azamane Tiliade powers up irresistibly, with whooping throughout, and little solos where you can virtually hear Bombino grinning.

Rock also loves a rebel. The blue-robed Tuareg have been frequently engaged in armed struggles over land rights; struggles complicated by the regional and religious politics of hotspots such as Mali and Libya. Trailblazers such as Tinariwen were the musical wing of the Tuareg rebellion. This record comes in the wake of recent hostilities in Mali, and partly serves as another reaffirmation of Tuareg culture in the face of mass deracination.

Moctar himself grew up in a series of refugee camps, crucibles where traditional Tuareg music somehow became alloyed with the penetrating guitar lines of Mark Knopfler. Although he was something of a child prodigy, Moctar is no greenhorn now, having served an apprenticeship under Tuareg guitar master Haja Bebe where he earned his nickname ("the kid"). Bombino has two previous albums under his belt and was the subject of a 2011 documentary that spread word of his prodigious, faintly Hendrix-like, playing. This western album pushes the Bombino story along persuasively.

Keyboards figure, where desert rock traditionally has none. They are really not that startling. The plangent wooze of lap steel isn't wrong either, adding a note of ghostly succour to the lovely closing track, Tamiditine. A vibes solo on Imuhar really sticks out, but to a western ear it sounds great. A Tuareg might feel differently.

You don't need a strong grasp of Tamasheq to notice Bombino has a song called Imidiwan (Friends), also the title of a track by Tinariwen. (Here, it is not too far off country music.) This reiteration underlines the commonality of heritage and purpose between the kid and his better-known elders; you wonder idly whether Group Bombino (what his band used to be called) has become Bombino to diversify a star from the other Tuareg collectives. Ultimately, though, you can get too cynical about these things. This is fine internationalist guitar music. Niamey Jam finds everyone in the studio – Group Bombino, plus Auerbach and four session musicians – chuntering along quite famously.

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Tuareg guitarist and songwriter Omara “Bombino” Moctar is undeniably a man of many talents, but he seems to have his work cut out with the Saharan desert blues genre having been so convincingly sewn up by the titanic presence of Tinariwen. Finding an international audience in the shadow of one of the most acclaimed acts on the world music scene is a Herculean task. It’s lucky then that musical King Midas and one half of The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach, is on hand to produce and provide studio space at his own Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville – a far cry from Bombino’s native Niger.

Last year Auerbach produced a blistering set for Dr John in the form of the brilliant Locked Down, and the sprinkling of fairy dust he applies is just as evident here. Although the music is still very much part of the African continent, the fuzzy blues licks could easily find a home on the resurgent American blues roster.

Bombino’s musical education has its genesis in turmoil, with the Tuareg tribe being forced to flee Niger on several occasions. During one exile a rebel left a guitar behind with Moctar’s family and Bombino (meaning “little child”) began to teach himself the basics, including spending hours watching videos of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. There followed roles in local bands and small-scale cassette releases before greater recognition began in 2009. Given the western influence on his development it’s no surprise that Auerbach’s production fits Bombino like a glove.

Opening track Amidinine set the tone with a dirty blues lick forming the sonic equivalent of finding a case of Jack Daniels at a desert oasis. While many would be distracted by Auerbach’s presence, it’s Bombino’s guitar that’s the real star of the show. His deft playing, off-kilter and juxtaposed riffs never let up over the course of the album’s 11 tracks. Other highlights include Azamane Tiliade, in which a wall of guitar overdubs produces an alighty slab of noise, and Niamey Jam’s near-psychedelic tendencies. Elsewhere, the pace varies with more subtle tracks including the atmospheric Imuhar and Imidiwan.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable work packed with infectious licks and proves to be an easy album to get along with from the get-go. The album’s title suggests that Bombino won’t let the grass grow under his feet for long, and it would be interesting to see his next move after the forthcoming European tour. Auerbach has delivered another crisply produced effort; given the variety of work he has produced since El Camino, the next steps for The Black Keys will be equally intriguing. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy.


Aug 4, 2021

Cameroon Garage Funk (by analog africa)

  Yaoundé, in the 1970´s, was a buzzing place. Every neighbourhood of Cameroon´s capital, no matter how dodgy, was filled with music spots but surprisingly there were no infrastructure to immortalise those musical riches. The country suffered from a serious lack of proper recording facilities, and the process of committing your song to tape could become a whole adventure unto itself. Of course, you could always book the national broadcasting company together with a sound engineer, but this was hardly an option for underground artists with no cash. But luckily an alternative option emerged in form of an adventist church with some good recording equipment and many of the artists on this compilation recorded their first few songs, secretly, in these premises thanks to Monsieur Awono, the church engineer. He knew the schedule of the priests and, in exchange for some cash, he would arrange recording sessions. The artists still had to bring their own equipment, and since there was only one microphone, the amps and instruments had to be positioned perfectly. It was a risky business for everyone involved but since they knew they were making history, it was all worth it.

At the end of the recording, the master reel would be handed to whoever had paid for the session, usually the artist himself..and what happened next? With no distribution nor recording companies around this was a legitimate question. More often then not it was the french label Sonafric that would offer their manufacturing and distribution structure and many Cameroonian artist used that platform to kickstart their career. What is particularly surprising in the case of Sonafric was their willingness to take chances and judge music solely on their merit rather than their commercial viability. The sheer amount of seriously crazy music released also spoke volumes about the openness of the people behind the label.

But who exactly are these artists that recorded one or two songs before disappearing, never to be heard from again? Some of the names were so obscure that even the most seasoned veterans of the Cameroonian music scene had never heard of them. A few trips to the land of Makossa and many more hours of interviews were necessary to get enough insight to assemble the puzzle-pieces of Yaoundé’s buzzing 1970s music scene. We learned that despite the myriad difficulties involved in the simple process of making and releasing a record, the musicians of Yaoundé’s underground music scene left behind an extraordinary legacy of raw grooves and magnificent tunes.

The songs may have been recorded in a church, with a single microphone in the span of only an hour or two, but the fact that we still pay attention to these great creations some 50 years later, only illustrates the timelessness of their music.

releases September 3, 2021 


Aug 3, 2021

Songhoy Blues - Optimisme



It’s impossible to separate Songhoy Blues and politics. Formed in 2012 as a direct result of being forced from their homes, after rebel jihadists took control of northern Mali and outlawed all music, the band were refugees in their own land when they attempted to start new lives in the capital city of Bamako, down in the south. They took their name from the centuries-old ethnic group they belonged to, just as their music was conceived as a desert blues celebration of a displaced culture.

A guest slot on Maison Des Jeunes, from Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, led to their aptly titled 2015 debut, Music In Exile, which coincided with an appearance in They Will Have To Kill Us First, an award-winning documentary about Malian musicians’ struggle to be heard during the crisis. Amid fluctuating levels of civil war, Résistance followed two years later. The arrival of Optimisme comes in the wake of an insurgent summer, when a military coup seized power from President Keita.

As the title implies, Optimisme finds Songhoy Blues tackling adversity and national unrest with a generous dollop of positivity. The anger may be palpable, but they don’t go in for bitter polemic. Instead the quartet – frontman Aliou Touré, guitarist Garba Touré, bass player Oumar Touré (none of whom are related, incidentally) and new drummer Drissa Koné – choose to spread the message via impossibly infectious grooves and an exhilarating sense of forward motion.

This is partly down to producer Matt Sweeney, leader of math-rockers Chavez and sometime Bonnie “Prince” Billy collaborator. Reprising his role from last year’s “Meet Me In The City” EP, Sweeney urged the band to replicate the dynamic intensity of their live shows, recording the album over the course of a week in Brooklyn, at the back end of a US tour.

Stylistically, Optimisme is a bubbling conflux of West African polyrhythms and elastic guitar rock. A more concentrated vision than Résistance, which found space for R&B and fanfares of brass, at times it hits harder and heavier than anything they’ve attempted before. “Badala” (rough translation: ‘We Don’t Give A Shit’) certainly fulfils its intention, hurtling along like something from late-’70s Thin Lizzy. “Korfo” (‘Chains’) comes at it from a different angle, all blended vocals and an ear-bending melody, before transforming itself into an unstoppable rock beast. As the son of Ali Farka Touré’s old percussionist Oumar Touré, Garba Touré lives up to his musical pedigree with some vigour, either locking into a trebly vamp or, as on “Worry” or “Dournia” (‘Life’), a seriously shreddy solo.

Other songs feel more distinctly Malian in form. “Assadja” and “Fey Fey”, for instance, are each carried by liquid grooves that beg you to shake a hip, further animated by surging beats and Aliou Touré’s agile vocals. Most of these tunes are delivered in Songhai, though there’s the odd excursion into colonial French and, for the first time, English, in the shape of “Worry”. The song is aimed at the younger generation in Mali, in particular the need to keep self-possessed and hopeful amid so much civil turbulence. “There is a long way to go/There is a long journey,” sings Aliou Touré, more in encouragement than despair. “Keep fighting today.”

The more ingrained aspects of cultural tradition are addressed on several songs about women’s rights. “Gabi” (‘Strength’) calls for an end to arranged marriages, told from the viewpoint of a reluctant bride-to-be trying to reason with her parents: “Let me tell you that our generation is different from yours… Let me choose the one I want.” Similarly, the thunderous noise of “Badala” reflects its protagonist’s decision to break free from the patriarchy and shape her own future.

These themes feed into wider questions of national identity. The warrior meaning behind “Assadja” relates to a person’s willingness to contribute to society. “Fey Fey” (‘Division’) recognises the various factions looking to separate Mali, but urges ethnic communities to stick together, just as they have done for centuries: “Even at the cost of our blood or our soul/We are not going to give in to the division of Mali.” By the same token, “Barre” (‘Change’) finds Songhoy Blues concluding that the key to their country’s future lies with its youth. Corruption and injustice may have become the norm, but “change is essential for development”. Over loose funk licks and percussive harmonies, the band’s mission is unequivocal: “Youth! Let’s rise for this change!” As protest music goes, Songhoy Blues are intent on mobilising hearts and minds in their own inimitable way, through force of will and sheer exuberance. 

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An exciting blend of Malian rhythms and rock‘n’roll, Optimisme is a reminder of music’s power to transcend both national and linguistic boundaries. It boasts searing guitar licks, powerhouse percussion and multiple languages, But Songhoy Blues are political to the marrow.

The record opens with a bang, thanks to the ferocious ‘Badala’, a healthy dose of hard rock that screams of a desire to break free from the constraints of oppression. The theme of striving for freedom is ingrained within the group, comprised of refugees from a country divided by war and ideology. It sets the stage for a record that embraces the high energy of live rock. The blues-inspired chord progressions are combined with infectious guitar solos, modernising the sounds of classic rock with a unique global influence. Every layer is tightly controlled, yet feels carefree in its enthralling exploration of a kind of modern punk.

Optimisme offers some moments of mild solace between its hardest-hitters, bringing together elements of psychedelic funk and desert blues. ‘Worry’, the only English track on the record, offers a message of hope – an important note, in a world that’s been consumed by existential anxiety. The vocals – showcasing a distinctly African style of singing, involving an astounding level of voice control – are entrancing no matter what language the lyrics are being sung in. The voice becomes yet another instrument within the band’s marvellously layered collection of eclectic sounds. Above all else, Optimisme feels urgent. Songhoy Blues’ unique desert blues herald a new future beyond the sonic constraints of the classics. 

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If you come to the third Songhoy Blues record thinking this is going to be more of that instantly recognisable granola/Birkenstocks/family friendly ‘World Music’ you think you know from Paul Simon or the WOMAD festival, you might want to take a seat and strap in, because things are about to get really unstable really quickly: Optimisme is more Garageland than Graceland in its approach.

The aggressive drums that herald opening track Badala allude to Dave Grohl’s killer intro on Nirvana’s Stay Away, while the guitar riffs, steeped in the Western blues tradition of Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, lash out with a malevolence reticent of teenage favourites like Rage Against The Machine and Papa Roach.

It’s not until the vocals come in, sung and screamed as they are in the group’s native Songhai, that you remember this quartet of young rock warriors hail from the scorched landscape of war stricken Mali, not the dank factories and garages of Detroit or Chicago. That exposure to conflict, impoverishment and discontent means the optimism the Timbuktu outfit infer in the title doesn’t appear to be present initially, especially in the song’s chorus, which roughly translates, as “We don’t give a shit”.

Their flammable classic debut five years ago was produced by Nick Zinner; he of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and to keep that indie rock light alive, they’ve recruited the dexterous hand of Chavez’s Matt Sweeney for this effort. It is the sound of turmoil and transitional surroundings. On tracks like Assadja, Sweeney has wrapped their signature urgent but elusively filigree guitar work around the foregrounded drums, letting them take root, rather than have them bouncing off one another.

Both the funk stomper Bon Bon and the highlife inspired Fey Fey feature jumpy guitar signatures that John Frusciante would be proud of, and the tracks Bare and Korfo foam and twist like dust storms carried across the breeze. Worry, the albums sole track sung in the English language, begins with the near saccharine positivity of early Beatles quickly giving way to a coda reminiscent of late ’70s John Lennon, a man at his most politically defiant, with the lyric morphing from “don’t worry, you’re going to be happy” to a pleading chorus of “Keep fighting today”.

It can be draining having to fight all the time and on Pour Toi and the album closer Kouma, the closest you’ll probably ever get to an acoustic number from Songhoy Blues, you start to see signs of them pursuing a little calm into their world, and all that frustration and exuberance that’s become their trademark, live and on record, is replaced with tiny sparks of hopefulness.