Last fall, Omara Moctar, known to most by his nickname Bombino, decamped to the thickly-forested hills near Woodstock, New York to record the follow-up to Nomad, the 2013 Dan Auerbach-produced LP that boosted his guitar-hero status to the next level — and ultimately became one of Rolling Stone's 50 Best Albums of 2013. For a dude who was born, raised, and still lives in Niger — the West African nation situated primarily in the Sahara Desert — it was a change of pace. "It was like paradise," he said of Applehead Recording, where he and his bandmates lived and worked. "Except for the farm animals that would come and bother us now and then, we were totally alone with nothing to do but to relax and make our music in a beautiful, green environment."
The result, fifth album Azel, is a leaner set than Nomad, with a brighter tone and a greater focus on Bombino's mad guitar flow. His collaborator this time was Dave Longstreth, point man for avant-pop avatars Dirty Projectors and a guitarist with a feel for offbeat style. He'd been a fan since discovering Group Bombino's Guitars from Agadez (Music From Niger Vol. 2), released in 2009 on the intrepid Sublime Frequencies label, and jumped at the chance to work with him. "I took my cues from Bombino," Longstreth says. "I didn't want to impose a sonic stamp. When you've got such a great band, that sounds so amazing in a room, it's just about capturing it, getting the sound of the instruments in the air. The art is in their playing."
Besides being schooled by Bombino and his crew on the magic of Dire Straits' back catalog ("Those guys are heads," Longstreth says), the producer spent much of his time in the studio simply marveling at Bombino's skills. "His presence and focus as a player was amazing," he said. "We'd do a six-minute track with multiple solos, and he'd want to double an acoustic solo, and he would play it exactly perfect, note for note, all the way through — same nuances, everything."
Bombino, translated by his manager, talked to Rolling Stone about the sessions.
Where are you right now?
At present I am in Agadez, the town where I was born and raised. It is a small, desert town in the North of Niger. It is my first home and my true home, you can say. I live in Niamey, the capital city of Niger. So when I am not touring somewhere outside Niger, I am in Niamey or I am visiting Agadez.
How was Dave Longstreth's approach different from Dan Auerbach's?
I would say was more relaxed than working with Dan. Dan had a clear idea of what he wanted right away and he would direct us this way and that way until we had recorded what he already had in his head. With Dave he was very happy to be patient, and listen to what we were playing, without pushing us one way or another, and then slowly, over the course of days, would begin to shape things the way he wanted. I was very happy about the way Dave worked, because to work with Tuareg music and musicians can be very complicated. We are not like American musicians in many ways. Our skills and our knowledge are very different from Western musicians. And of course, our language and our culture is also very different. So this can be a big challenge, but Dave handled himself very gracefully. He would hang out with us, eat dinner with us and joke around. We had a lot of fun together. Really, it was a beautiful time.
The video for "Inar" was shot in the studio, and focuses on your guitar playing, which is superb. What players have inspired you?
My main inspirations on the guitar are Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib] of Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré and Santana. There are so many great guitarists today but none of them hold a place in my heart like these five guys. They are my heroes and I dedicate every note I play on the guitar to them.
What makes this new record different from your others?
I think it is just the next level of my own development as an artist. The others in the band have been playing with me for years now so the sound together is much tighter. This for me is the biggest difference. I think for me another big difference is the "Tuareggae" style that we introduce on this album. This is something I've been developing in my live show for two or three years and this was my first opportunity to put it on an album. I love this mix of Tuareg music with reggae rhythms. People always seem to really like it when we play it live, so I hope it will be the same reaction when they listen to the album. This is something really new for Tuareg music, so it is a bit of a risk.
Did you hear a lot of Bob Marley or other Jamaican music in Africa when you were growing up?
Yes, Bob Marley was a big, big artist for me growing up. I still listen to his music all the time. For sure he is a musical hero for me and a big influence in this new style.
The vocals by Mama "Mahassa" Walet Amoumene are powerful. What inspired you
to add a woman musician to your group?
Mahassa is like a cousin to me. We have known each other for many years. She plays in the group Tartit, which is all women. She is a great Tuareg singer, very sweet and very wise. I wanted to have a woman singing on this album because I felt that the music demanded it. The music is bright and colorful and I wanted there to be a feminine voice to compliment that. So we arranged to have her record vocals in Brussels after we finished the recording in Woodstock. I agree with you, she did a beautiful job!
The first song, "Akhar Zaman," criticizes young Tuareg people, specifically for their "materialism."
To be a young Tuareg man or woman today is very difficult. The world is advancing very quickly and it is important that we keep up, that we invest everything that we can into education and development. But at the same time, we cannot abandon our traditions and our values as Tuareg people. This is what gives us our identity, our strength and our unity as a proud and historic group of people. So the Tuareg youth need to have one foot in the modern world and one foot in the traditional world. It cannot be both feet in one or the other. In "Akhar Zaman" I am addressing the Tuareg youth who have moved to the West and forgotten about their Tuareg identity and culture.
When you talk about Tuareg culture disappearing in your songs, what is
being lost, exactly?
What is being lost is the values that we have. Respect for elders, for example. This is very important in Tuareg traditional life and it is being abandoned by many Tuareg youth in the West. Women, grandparents, community are all valued very highly in Tuareg culture, and they are not respected in the same ways in Western culture.
How do you view the current political situation in Africa with regard to the Tuareg community? There was serious violence in Mali last month, but also a ceasefire in Libya.
There are good and bad situations for the Tuareg people in Africa in this moment, just as there have always been. In my home country of Niger the situation for the Tuareg people is better than it has ever been before in my life. We are free, respected citizens in a way that we have never been before, and I pray that this peace and openness lasts for many many years in Niger. In Mali the situation is much different and more difficult, and in Libya the situation is also very bad for everyone, not just for the Tuareg. To be a Tuareg is to be a minority wherever you are, so this means that usually you are not in control of your own destiny as a people.
What are your musical goals for 2016?
I think my only goal is to survive all the touring I will do this year!
What are your hopes for the new year?
As always, I am just hoping to continue to spread joy through music and to promote peace and to promote Tuareg culture around the world. Especially now when there are Muslim refugees all over the world, it is important for artists to remind the public of our shared humanity, and this is what I try to do. As a Tuareg artist and a former refugee, I understand how complicated this problem is and how difficult it is to overcome racism and these sorts of social pressures. So I feel like my music is more important than ever.