The Tuareg guitar music scene that’s boiling up across the Sahara has yielded its share of great music, but not a lot of stars. Omara “Bombino” Moctar seems set to change that. He’s got the requisites down; brushes with celebrity (he sang along with members of The Rolling Stones on this record and did a stint as Angelina Jolie’s desert guide), a media push (film maker Ron Wyman has made the forthcoming movie Agadez, the Music & the Rebellion, about him), and a fairly photogenic face. And if you’ve kept this page marked, you may already know that he has some skills to go with the looks and the connections; another Dusted scribe called him a virtuoso and his entry in Sublime Frequencies’ Guitars From Agadez series the label’s most accessible release.
Agadez, which is named for the hometown in Niger that Bombino has twice had to leave as a consequence of war, is an unusual star vehicle. Although it drops the group and trades in the microphone-frying guerilla recording quality of its predecessor for the balanced sound of a professional job done in Cambridge, Mass., the music doesn’t sound compromised. There are no laminated-in-Paris keyboards or famous guest guitarists, no attempts to oversell Saharan desert music’s links to the blues — just guitars, voices, hand drums and handclaps. The loping, unhurried rhythms are similar to those heard on Tinariwen and Ali Farka Toure records.
What makes Agadez accessible is Bombino’s innate melodicism. His tunes are equally winning whether led by his soulful voice or his tart guitar. He was born in 1980, and his tutelage includes the study of VHS tapes of classic rock and stints playing with the leading lights of his local scene; the anthemic quality he brings to “Ahoulanguine Akaline” sounds natural. He’s as post-everything as anyone else who was born at the tail end of the Carter administration and plays in a rock ‘n’ roll band today.
Still, there is a bit of self-conscious framing going on. Someone hoping for the hepped-up blare of Guitars From Agadez, Volume 2‘s electric side might be disappointed. Even when he picks the pace up on “Kammou Taliat,” there’s none of the older record’s body-slamming blare. Instead, the instruments have been mixed into a formation that any folk-rock fan can grasp; the drums never overwhelm, Bombino’s voice stands well out from the backing, and the guitar leads jump at you the same way they would on a Richard Thompson record. Come to think of it, someone ought to give Thompson a call and set him up with a Tuareg band; they’d probably bring out some of the droning mystery that’s faded from his recent music. Maybe Bombino’s the man for the job?