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.