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Group Bombino, "Guitars from Agadez vol. 2"

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While Tuareg guitar music continues to gather acclaim through groups like Tinarawen, the wider context of poverty and rebellion in Niger and Mali remains obscured from the outside world. In response, Sublime Frequencies continues its vinyl series documenting Tuareg music in the Nigerian city of Agadez.


Sublime Frequencies

As backstories go, Group Bombino's is as hardscrabble as they come. In late 2007, fighting between the government forces and Tuareg rebels cut off northern Niger from the rest of the world. Fearing political violence, Group Bombino leader Omara Moctar went into hiding. The only road to Agadez was mined and visitors have only been allowed entrance to the city by armed escort. Dire as the situation is, it makes assessing Group Bombino's music a difficult task. Tuareg guitar music is political, an expression of the dissatisfaction festering in refugee camps and the impoverished cities bordering the Sahara. I'm sure the message is powerful to Bombino's home audience, but being ignorant of the language and unstudied in the region's history, I can't fully experience that aspect. The roots of this conflict stretch back decades, and it’s impossible to understand it with just liner notes and a few news stories to guide you. Cultural distance shouldn't prevent anyone from listening to this record though, because it's one of Sublime Frequencies' best so far. Even when you put the context aside, Group Bombino is still compelling.

The record is divided into acoustic and electric sides completely different from each in mood and fidelity. The first half was recorded by the band in the desert, and the mournful acoustic pieces preformed are evocative of nomadic solitude. (Even camels can be heard grunting the background.) The songs are gentle but always have a strong rhythmic pulse of chanting vocals and handclaps. The style is called "dry guitar" in the local vernacular, and the name fits well with the dusky, metallic tone of the playing.

The second half of the album was recorded live by Hisham Mayet at a wedding. Listeners acquainted with Sublime Frequencies’ raw, hands off approach will be familiar with the din kicked up here. The guitars are cranked up to full volume, backed with a booming, rubbery bass and furious drumming. The term Tuareg Blues is used sometimes to describe this music, and for Group Bombino it actually makes sense. The extended guitar solos and thick rhythmic chug on "Boughassa" seem impossibly related to '60s blues rock rave-ups by Jimi Hendrix or the Yardbirds. Bombino's playing is on par with the virtuosos of that time, but without the aristocratic pretensions that come with such comparisons.

Thanks to Sublime Frequencies for putting out music that may have just as well vanished from the face of the earth. As I have said elsewhere, it's easy for us to assume that the bulk of the world's music is available through distros, file-sharing groups, and specialty shops. These tools may ease some of the boundaries that politics and distance put up, but the hard work of documenting and releasing music is still needed. Critics sometimes accuse Sublime Frequencies of voyeurism and cultural appropriation, but Mayet shows an obvious affection and respect for Group Bombino and the Tuareg people that transcends such lazy claims. Amongst endless chatter about the failing music industry or the state of arts funding in America, Group Bombino is making music under difficulties harder than you or I will ever experience. They deserve to be heard, war and poverty be damned.

Last Updated on Monday, 20 April 2009 06:46  


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