Sublime Frequencies has been creating something of a collectors’ market for their limited-run vinyl releases of unusual world music from Syria, Niger, and the Western Sahara. Though no doubt initiated due to the small and proudly independent nature of the label, and to a perception that this music would probably not sell in enormous quantities, the decision has proven to be a shrewd marketing move. The vinyl copies that remain in record stores are now being sold for seriously inflated prices. Those in possession of these versions can feel part of a select club, content in the knowledge that the musical rarity of this desert music is matched by the rareness of its medium. Sublime Frequencies says it is too busy with new projects to press more vinyl but has made all the sold-out albums available as CDs. The label also offers customers the chance to buy data DVDs of the majority of their fascinating back catalogue, meaning that the music remains available, albeit divided into three tiers of packaging. Audiophiles and lovers of gatefold sleeves can continue to seek out the “originals”, while others can make do with digital.
This album by Group Bombino, the desert rock group led by Omara Mochtar (aka Bombino), is the second “guitars from Agadez” release after the 2007 album by Group Inerane. Hisham Mayet of Sublime Frequencies came to know of the group that same year while on a return trip to Agadez, the city (and region) in Niger that is home to what Mayet calls the “Tuareg guitar scene”. In his liner notes, Mayet describes attending a concert featuring a number of Agadez groups and being blown away by Bombino’s “electric force”. The groups in the local scene play in various configurations, sharing equipment and playing whenever availability and equipment allows. Like other groups in the scene, Bombino was influenced by the original Malian desert rebels Tinariwen, a group that dates back to the late 1970s and which has enjoyed considerable international popularity on the world music circuit in recent years. Mochtar also cites Malian Ali Farka Touré (also well known to world music fans) and fellow Nigerien Abdallah ag Oumbadougou (whose work is less easy to obtain outside of the Arabic and Francophone worlds, but can be sampled on the CD/DVD Desert Rebel from 2007).
Like other groups associated with the Tuareg music scene, Mochtar uses his music as a tool of opposition, aligning himself with the causes of the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), the group behind the 2007 Tuareg uprising against the Nigerien government. Sublime Frequencies reports that, at the time of this album’s release, Bombino was in exile after fleeing from government forces. What effect, if any, the recent military coup in Niger will have on the MNJ’s demands remains unclear. What we have for now is Bombino’s sonic legacy, its presence an urgent reminder of unfinished work in both the musical and political spheres.
Appropriately for a project originally disseminated on LP, Guitars from Agadez Vol. 2 is divided into two halves. The first four tracks represent the “dry guitar” sound that was Bombino’s first influence; these tracks come from Group Bombino’s own archives. The remaining five tracks were recorded live by Mayet in Agadez and represent the electric, more psychedelic side of the group’s work. Some of the acoustic tracks come complete with camel noises for an extra sense of place (not just the “camel hoof” beat familiar to listeners of desert rock, but actual grunts).
The opening acoustic number, “Tenere” (a Tuareg word for “desert”), sets the scene ably with its mix of solo and choral voices, hand claps, clopping percussion, and a guitar style that oscillates between insistent riffing and subtle, quick-fire runs. It’s instantly catchy, a respectful take on the tradition of Oumbadougou and Tinariwen. Camel grunts and a spoken introduction serve to root and locate “Imuhar”, another exercise in fine fingerwork from Bombino, who also supplies a wonderful, yearning vocal to the track. “Amidinine” has an introduction and chord structure that is much closer to the American blues and serves as a fascinating exercise in reimagining the musical comings and goings of the blues between Africa and America. Even more intriguingly, it is possible to hear something of the sonorities explored by British folk guitarists such as Davy Graham and Bert Jansch in the ’60s and offers as a chance to recall Graham’s fascination with African and other non-European guitar tunings and styles.
Such recollections are quickly put to rest by “Boghassa”, the first of the electric numbers recorded by Hayet. The ’60s might still be a comparison point, but it would be the ’60s of Hendrix and heavy psychedelic rock rather than the acoustic orientalism of the folkies. Against Ibrahim Emoud’s rocking backbeat and support from fellow guitarists Alhassane Alwiguine, Adi Mohamed, and Kaoucen Mohamed, Bombino sends out red hot desert blues licks on this instrumental. The next track, “Imouhare”, brings the drums into a leading role and adds chanted vocals. The band keep ratcheting up the intensity while Bombino’s guitar takes off on a set of fiery solos. If there’s any disappointment to be found in this track, it is merely that, given the trance-inducing nature of this all-enveloping rock music, the music fades out too soon to get really lost in it. This is arguably less of an issue with “Issitchilane”, an even heavier track with a growing sense of menace.
Indeed, the album is sequenced in such a way that the pressure and intensity seem to build with each track, as exemplified by the guitar-shredding “Kamu Telyat” and the pummeling album closer, “Eronafene Tihoussayene”, during and following which there is a real sense of transportation. Taken as a whole text, then, the album certainly delivers on the extended dynamic one would expect from a musical culture that places “magic and ecstasy” at its core (“Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel” is the title given to Mayet’s filmed account of Nigerien music, released by Sublime Frequencies in 2005). But it would be interesting to hear this dynamic being played out over the longer duration that fading can’t help but suggest.
Perhaps to ask for such seamlessness is to disrespect one of the core aesthetics of Sublime Frequencies, the highly valued “rawness”. The techniques used by the SF collective in its video and audio documents serve both to disorient the viewer/listener and to remain committed to working outside what it sees as the world music mainstream. However, Tuareg rock is one those music scenes that seems to problematize simple binary divisions between the mainstream and the underground. Tinariwen, a veteran Tuareg group, became familiar to the world music audience in the 2000s, while Nigerien groups Toumast and Etran Finatawa have also made names for themselves on the world music circuit. A number of commentators have been quick to establish Bombino’s authenticity against these other groups, but this is an ultimately pointless exercise. The Tuareg scene is one of those moments in popular music where local and globalized forms are equally instructive and equally interesting. To take a pair of terms utilized by the late country music scholar Richard Peterson, we see in the Tuareg scene manifestations of “hard core” and soft shell” styles, the two feeding on and influencing each other. That Etran Finatawa may be appearing in a swanky music venue somewhere near you while Omara Mochtar is on the run in Niger is no small matter, of course, but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that all of these groups are contributing to making Tuareg rock a genuinely exciting transnational music scene.