Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13

Categories: Concert Review
Photo by Erik Hess

Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Americans have plenty of Tuareg desert blues to chose from these days. That sounds really weird, even in an age where we've grown accustomed to digital abundance glutting our most niche musical tastes. But following in the wake of northern Mali's guitar-wielding rebels Tinariwen, the music of the Sahara's ethnic Berber nomads has become the biggest world music trend of the past decade.

Even so, Omara Moctar stands out. The 33-year-old Niger-born guitarist, who performs under the single name Bombino, received an imprimatur from the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced his latest, most focused, and best-recorded album, Nomad, in Nashville. The raw edges of Saharan music are smoothed but not slickened; brittle tones are softened but their arid essence is preserved. He plays prettily, but he gets loud. Bombino clearly wants to lead a Tuareg rock band.

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Slideshow: Bombino at Cedar Cultural Center

You wouldn't have known it from the first two songs he played at the Cedar Tuesday night. Wearing a purple robe and white scarf, Bombino sat and played acoustic guitar for a thoughtful mini-set that his two hand-drummers and electric bassist Moussa Albade weren't about to let get too thoughtful. This prelude was an accomplished nod to a tradition Bombino spent the rest of the night expanding.

Photos by Erik Hess

Then one hand-drummer turned out to be electric guitarist Mohamed Emoud, the other, Corey Wilhelm, got behind a drum kit, and Bombino himself strapped on his Fender for Nomad's "Her Tenere." The band sounded so committed to the moment that unless you've been brushing up on your Tamashek, you wouldn't have known the lyrics offered a reflection on "nostalgia." ("I was sitting, meditating/ On the problems facing the desert," according to the album's translation.)

Bombino has claimed he learned his shit as a teenager from watching videos of Hendrix and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, and you can hear the effortless fluidity, though not the gargantuan tonal palette, of the former, and the clear lines, though not the fussy tastefulness, of the latter. He's bluesy without recycling stock blues usages, his playing more linear than the trancelike circular repetitions you hear in most Tuareg guitarists. He avoids rock's frenzied drive up the fretboard toward ejaculatory liberation, and he was more likely to climax, if you insist, with some aggressive chording.

But we already knew Bombino was a killer guitarist. The performance's real revelation was the drumming, more forceful than on the recordings, though never pushy. What served as a firm bone structure in the studio became the muscle propelling the music on stage. Rather than keeping time within the confines of a classifiable style, Wilhelm seemed to translate the particular guitar rhythms (particularly a chord landing on the upbeat) into the language of the trap drum kit, often launching into an idiosyncratic disco gallop.

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