Critic’s pick 275: Bombino, ‘Nomad’

bombinoHave the immensely rhythmic and meditative sounds of the Saharan-bred Tureg people become the newest voices of global pop? Apparently so, if the textured, unyielding and powerfully infectious guitar grooves summoned by Niger native Omara “Bombino” Moetar on his new album, Nomad, are any indication.

The Turegs have long been nomads, hence the album title. In Bombino’s case, exiled life in the desert was initiated by numerous protests with the Niger government. But exposure over the years to such decidedly non-Tureg guitarists as Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler also triggered a taste for a wider instrumental vocabulary.

Essentially unknown outside the Sahara before 2009, Bombino eventually came to the attention of Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys guitarist invited the Tureg artist and his band to Nashville to record Nomad. Fans of tradition-minded world beat and Afro-pop music had every right to be wary of such dislocation. After all, could any artistic  environment be more radically removed from the African desert than Nashville?

But Auerbach is respectful of the sounds, themes and song structures in Bombino’s music. Unlike his production work on Locked Down, last year’s outstanding comeback album for Dr. John, Auerbach takes a largely hands-off approach on Nomad. He stacks layer upon layer of Bombino’s guitar lines to create a huge streamlined groove that propels the album-opening Amidinine, the darting percussive strut of Adinat and the arid blues chant Zigzan.

There are no prolonged solos, aside from the ones that steer and service the rhythms. Similarly, the Americanized touches – specifically, the keyboard colors of Bobby Emmett and the steel guitar support of Russ Pahl, both of which bolster the sunny, soul saturated flow of Aman – are largely ornamental. It is always the massive, chiming guitar sound that leads Nomad’s inviting charge.

Auerbach’s only direct instrumental contribution is the fairly innocuous bass guitar he plays on Niamey Jam. But he very much leaves his print on the album. Nomad steers away from the sort of global dance-floor grind that has derailed recordings by world music great Angelique Kidjo, but Auerbach greases Nomad’s desert groove ever so slightly in a way that will probably make the music inviting to fans of vintage American psychedelia and some of today’s more organically inclined jam bands.

Nomad’s liner notes contain English translations to lyrics that reveal the political, personal and spiritual inspirations behind the album’s 11 songs, although the variances of timbre in Bombino’s chant-like singing suggest which emotional intent is at work. In the end, though, the groove commands all. And even though he has a Black Key in his corner, Bombino is at the heart of an intoxicating desert sound that isn’t likely to remain foreign for long.

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