Date: December 3, 2013
Venue: The Hamilton, Washington, DC
Tuareg guitarist and rising star Bombino, known as Omara Moctar to his mom back home in Niger, played The Hamilton last night to a packed house. Riding a wave of good will and critical acclaim, having released an excellent album called Nomad earlier this year (produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys), Bombino has been on tour for the better part of 2013. Bombino opened for Robert Plant earlier this summer at the posh suburban amphitheater Wolf Trap but, with a $50 ticket price and a 50 minute road trip during rush hour, I opted out and kept my fingers crossed for a headlining gig closer to home. My hopes were answered.
I'm no expert on nomadic Tuareg music (yet), often called African "desert blues," but I am familiar with the commonly known touchstones: Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Toure, Tuareg super-group Tinariwen, the Festival au Desert held yearly outside of Timbuktu (sadly now postponed indefinitely due to violent strife in the region, but I'm still hoping to go someday), and Robert Plant's affinity for and dabbling in the genre.
Some claim this style of North African desert guitar music is the direct antecedent of African-American blues, but like 1970's Nigerian and Ghanian Afrobeat music - heavily informed by James Brown's funk revolution Stateside - it's more likely that Tuareg guitar music shares similar genes but developed in tandem with more popular African-diasporic mutations from the West. Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix, and Mark Knopfler are known influences. Apparently, the latter two were studied carefully by Bombino via bootleg video when he was learning guitar as a youth in Agadez.
Where traditional American blues is often mournful, slow, and instrumentally minimal, Bombino's style speeds up the pace considerably, incorporating a full band (wearing traditional Tuareg desert garb) with bass guitar, harmonica, drum kit, and traditional African percussion - all elements weaved together tightly, creating a relentless and euphoric groove. Bombino's guitar playing is characterized by impressive finger picking and high-speed fluttering hammer-on and vibrato fret work. Little wonder Dan Auerbach jumped at the opportunity to produce Nomad before Jack White got the chance (or the interest, judging by his truly bat shit production projects).
Bombino began his performance at the swanky Hamilton politely seated, playing a matte black acoustic-electric guitar, singing in his native tamashek to the well mannered dinner-theater crowd. As tempos began to increase and Bombino himself couldn't resist stomping the floor with his heel and wriggling gleefully in his chair as if in trance, the empty floor at the foot of the stage slowly began to attract brave dancers (to the ire of a few diners seated front-row, who apparently had never been to a concert before).
Between songs Bombino drew cheers and bantered with reverent crowd members in French - all the while flashing a sly grin and humbly putting his hand over his heart in gratitude (I think that's what that means). He and the band seemed to be in their glory, as was the audience. Soon enough Bombino stood up, switched to straight electric guitar, and proceeded to rock through selections from Nomad like the infectious psych-jam "Azamane Tiliade." By then the floor was fully packed with an eclectic mass of fans, dancing joyfully to the pulsating rhythms - truth be told, some struggling to dance in rhythm (what is this, a double time 3/4 waltz?).
Bombino closed out the evening with a completely unnecessary super-jam with surprise guest Junior Marvin from the Wailers (not to be confused with fellow reggae legend, and very recently deceased, Junior Murvin) who teased out some tepid Americanized blues riffs while looking totally lost and confused. Despite this slip-up (a bone thrown out to the hippies in the crowd), Bombino created a truly exotic and jubilant atmosphere - playing, unexpectedly, one of my favorite shows of the year. I can't help but root for Bombino. Reggae had Bob Marley. Afrobeat had Fela Kuti. I'd like to see Bombino transcend the patronizing "world music" tag and become a charismatic genre leader in his own right - an international guitar-hero carrying the flag and pushing the envelope for Tuareg music. Based on this show, I think that's a strong possibility.
Check out a cool video about Bombino and the story of Nomad here.