One of the most vital, exciting electric guitar scenes is in…. well it’s not bound to a state but to an itinerant people who have been caught up in various civil wars over the last few years, the Tuareg of North West Africa.
The first widely heard intimations that something was brewing in that neck of the woods (sands?) was Ali Fakar Toure’s Grammy winning collaboration with Ry Cooder Talking Timbuktu. Then in 2001 Tinariwen were “discovered” at a festival in Mali, despite having been performing since 1979. Their records, and especially Aman Iman put what is now called “desert blues” (the Tuareg simply call it “guitar”) more vividly on the map.
But these two most famous examples are not the only exciting guitar acts to emerge from the sands of northern Africa, though periodic wars and harassments have made it difficult for these people to perform and market their music. Bombino journeyed to the USA in 2006, but in 2007 he found himself caught up the Tuareg rebellion. He was back in 2009 to start recording what would become Agadez, but eventually the project was finished in Niger after the government and the rebels agreed a truce. As part of the peace celebrations Bombino, whose music had been banned by the government, played a concert outside the mosque in his hometown of Agadez.
As a youngster he paid careful attention to videos of Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix, and he is more of an obvious guitar hero than some of the older acts operating in this genre. His electric guitar sound is biting but essentially clean. The power comes from his note choices and rhythmic instincts. His music is typical of the genre in that he often eschews the drums of rock and relies on homespun percussion (mostly djembe and hand claps), and he makes extensive use of drones which often confers a trance-like quality on proceedings – “Tigrawahi Tikma” and the opening “Ahoulaguine Akaline” are examples here.
The songs are in his mother tongue Tamashek. You can find translations on line. The lyrics are simplistic romantic or patriotic pieces. The real interest for us here in the west is the guitar work and the cunning rhythms. Only a minority of songs are in the common time that dominates Western popular music. Sometimes Bombino and his rhythm section play poly-rhythmic games that add to the elusive and dreamlike nature of the music. Listen to the way they appear to slowly shift from one time signature to another on “Iyat Idounia Ayasahen” (they don’t really. It’s an illusion, but a well executed illusion can be taken for reality). That track (which sounds live) also features a terrific electric guitar work out.
“Tar Hani” leans on the flat third a lot, features another prolonged (but not too long) solo and is funkier. “Kammou Taliat” is built around a thrilling, surging electric guitar figure. The closer “Tebsakh Dalet” is a good example of the mellower, acoustic songs that add contrast.
Now the big question (it often comes up when Tuareg guitar music is discussed): Is this the music that migrated (under pressure) to the USA and became the blues? Well of course it isn’t – Bombino (and Tinariwen) spent a lot of time absorbing Western guitar heroes. But probably there’s a common ancestry. The blues (and thus the rock ‘n roll that derived from it) isn’t the same music that those slaves took to the Americas with them (it’s barely what it was in the 1940s) but grew from that music, adapting and changing as it did so. And the same has happened here but for different reasons and in different directions. If you want to really muse on this you end up with an intriguing proposition of this ancient music forcibly migrating to the new world, morphing into contemporary rock and pop and then travelling back home on tape and CD to force changes in the original music.*
Or course you don’t have to pay any attention to the recent history of the Tuareg, or to the musicological theories. You don’t need the extra context to enjoy this exciting, vital music.
* Some musicologists suggest that nearly all Western European music, and everything that has spun off from that, can be traced back to North Africa via the Moorish influx into Europe in the first millenium AD. The rope is tangled and turns back upon itself.