Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13

Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13
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.

Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13
Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13
Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13
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.


Bombino at the Cedar, 6/11/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Bombino's stage presence was understated yet assured, and even at his fieriest he never hammed it up. It was probably necessity rather than shyness that limited his stage banter to expressions of gratitude. He sometimes said "Merci." When he was feeling loquacious, he expanded that to "Merci beaucoup." When he was feeling adventurous, he strayed into an English "Thank you." But when, after nine-song set, Bombino returned for an encore of "Tomiditine," another song from Nomad, he did lead the crowd in a "whoa oh" chant, proving he could he could indeed act the showman when the moment called for it.

Critic's Bias: I suspect tokenism when the public radio folks pluck a single African music disc each year to promote, especially when there's a familiar Western name attached to the project. But Nomad really is a terrific example of a musician's ambition expanding the range of his art.

The Crowd: On the younger side for a Cedar African music show.

Overheard in the Crowd: "I heard him for the first time today and I had to come. We drove all the way from Rochester."

Random Notebook Dump: The band plays without a setlist, as I learned when I tried to wrangle one from Bombino himself after the show, using my pitiful high school French ("Uh, noms de chansons? Pardon, je ne parle francais since l'ecole"). His tour manager, Tyler George Minetti, who's also his lap steel player and auxiliary percussionist, mercifully stepped in to explain that a few of the songs they'd performed were newer than Nomad even, as yet untitled and unrecorded.

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