Review Summary: Admirable blend of American and Tuareg folk music traditions with a "virtuostic" lead guitar performance.
Group Bombino - Guitars from Agadez, Vol. 2
In the course of studying 19th and 20th century Western music as well as studying the folk traditions of indigenous cultures, I developed a distaste for exoticism. For me, non-Western musical ideas were rarely given a smooth integration into Western instrumentation, resulting in music that sounded copied and pasted. In a particularly notable example, Verdi's opera Aida
, is a piece that appropriates Chinese anhemitonic pentatonic melodies to color the opera's east meets west plot. These "exotic" fragments stick out like a sore thumb and are usually just surface melodies that serve to suggest that certain themes or character relations have a Chinese quality. They are musical hangnails that deserve to be gracelessly plucked from the material. However, these musical affronts are not just Whitey holding everybody down. Most non-Western appropriations of Western musical ideas have a similarly campy feel (think of the J Pop and Bollywood traditions). Creating deft blends of distinct cultural traditions requires composers and performers with a strong knowledge of all traditions involved and not an armchair view of the appropriated ideas.
Group Bombino are in a unique ethnomusicological situation as contemporary Tuareg musicians. Led by guitarist Omara Mochtar (Bombino), this group represents an ethnic and cultural group that is nomadic, but geographically unique to the West Saharan regions of Mali and Niger. Their sound reflects this paradox as well; their style is a mix of wandering acoustic North African melodies not too distant from more tonal-sounding maqam, and riff-based electric rock and blues ideas imported from the West. A lot of idiomatic blues guitar slides and hammers are used as vehicles to decorate the traditional melodic content. Group Bombino even make open chord voicings, a staple of the American blues, rock, and acoustic guitar tradition, sound like drone instrumental tones (which are typically attributed to Indian music but make notable appearances throughout music influenced by Islamic culture, particularly in itinerant cultures that spread from Europe to Hindustani India). Never is this blend of east meets west more apparent but also plausible and enjoyable than in the second half of the album when Bombino moves away from the unplugged "dry guitar" style of the first half of the album and incorporates his full ensemble. The second half of the album is infused with shades of rock subgenres like psychedelic, early prog, and funk that makes the musical diffusion an even richer aural experience. Group Bombino are a fully realized synergy of two different musical styles that never falls trap to exoticism or inauthenticity.
While much can be said about Bombino's favorable balance of tradition and expression, there is more to Guitars of Agadez, Vol. 2
than its cultural weave. Something that will hopefully strike listeners right off the bat is that the playing on this album is energetic and ecstatic. Mochtar plays with a spirited fleet-fingered quality that makes the songs revolve and rush along, despite the fact that the song sections and chord progressions are relatively static. Bombino just jams off of a few core ideas, but the enthusiasm in the playing keeps the album spirited and engaging throughout its runtime. Though his performance, which some have even lauded as virtuostic, is certainly the cornerstone of the album's character, the accompanying musicians are have a vital if understated contribution to the mix. The percussionists complement Bombino's light touch on the guitar with hand claps and hand drums beats that capture a galloping beat or a subtle African rhythmic phase. On the second half of the album when a Western drummer comes into the mix, the tight, snare-heavy approach invokes reggae's trebly and upbeat accents. The vocals are also incredibly enjoyable. They mostly sound like repetitive phrases with folk motives as melodies but have that pastoral openness and vibrato that connotes the spirit of folk music, whether Tuareg or American, so well.
Group Bombino's Guitars from Agadez, vol. 2
is not going to top any year-end lists or change the way people think about music (unless some ridiculous M.I.A.-esque character uses Tuareg traditions to make annoying pop songs), but it's a wonderful album in its simplicity and exoticism-defying charm. It's an album that should be taken as matter of factly as possible and enjoyed with no reservations and hopefully less intellectually than I've treated it here.