The Upshot: Roll over Ali Farka Touré, and tell Paul Simon the news.
BY FRED MILLS
Back in 2013 this publication tagged Tuareg guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar’s eponymous group’s Dan Auerbach-produced album Nomad (Nonesuch) as one of the year’s best (in our annual best albums roundup), additionally noting how, on tour that year as Robert Plant’s opening act, “the North African group really showed American crowds what so-called ‘trance music’ was all about. No less so than on this major label release, a mesmerizing collection of moods and grooves.” Since then, Bombino has moved over to indie label Partisan (presumably because it can devote more time and attention than Nonesuch, which is constantly juggling the demands of much larger artists), and it’s also lined up with Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth for production duties. In the process, Moctar & Co. serve up grooves so deep and seamless, melodies so rich and haunting, that the songwriter sounds more like a wizened delta bluesman with decades of experience rather than a relatively young man in his mid-thirties.
Azel (the name of a village, incidentally) starts off luminously via the waltzlike “Akhar Zaman” (“This Moment”), with Moctar unleashing spirals of upper-neck notes that are almost Hendrixian in tone, the band convulsing percussively behind him with glee. Later, on “Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar” (“A Great Desert I Saw”), amid a more straightforward blues-rock arrangement, that glee turns purposeful, the aforementioned grooves mirroring the lyrics’ theme, about the nomadic Tuareg existence of trudging through the African desert. Moctar sings in his native tongue—the English translation is provided in the booklet—and at one point he’s joined by wild backing vocal shrieks, almost as if the travelers had been beset by bandits or warriors.
As with the current crop of Fela Kuti-worshiping Afro-beat rockers, not to mention Bombino’s Tuareg countrymen Tinariwen, this group’s appreciation of and instinct for deep-groove sounds—here, American delta blues play as big a role as anything else —is profound. Not since Ali Farka Touré stormed the record bins back in the ‘90s has there been an African artist quite so gifted as Moctar. Memo to my fellow Americans: if your idea of African music is Paul Simon playing out his colonial lord fantasies amid a bunch of syrupy melody and chipper rhythms, well… this note’s for you. And there are some surprises awaiting.
DOWNLOAD: “Akhar Zaman,” “Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar”