Omara “Bombino” Moctar is remarkable for having survived some seriously unpleasant times without giving up on his love of music. Agadez is a triumph in that respect; the album case says that two of his band members were executed “during the most recent Tuareg rebellion”, and Bombino himself has been forced to flee Niger more than once. That he was able to learn to play a forbidden instrument, keep a band together, and produce an album against that backdrop is nothing short of remarkable; his determination to succeed is impressive.
Agadez is Bombino’s first album. It showcases a skilled hand with a guitar, liquid singing and undeniable enthusiasm. Each of the ten songs, which range from three to nine minutes long, are more or less extended jam sessions that noodle around aimlessly and sometimes repetitively.
The lyrics, when translated, range from political/revolutionary theme to personal. One example of the political:
People! Hold on for a moment!/ Anyone you contact, will tell you/ Our community needs help/ We are suffering and have to stand up for our rights/ We have to fight against injustice and discrimination/ But he has other ideas concerning just his own life/ At the end you will realize that he is fighting only for his own interests/ And he has no aims for the people. –From Azamane (My Brothers United)
Regardless of topic, the translated lyrics just weren’t all that compelling for me, although that may be the translation at fault–or the fact that I live in comfortable middle-class America and have no frame of reference for Bombino’s lifetime of struggle. I suspect that alone makes it terribly difficult for me to appreciate Agadez; I’m clearly not the intended audience.
If judged purely as a jam session, this is a fun album; Bombino definitely knows how to play, and has an attention getting, crystal-clear picking style during solos. If judged as an example of desert music, I have no idea whether it’s a faithful representation, but it certainly does call to mind images of sand and heat and a nomadic people. It’s bluesy in spots and very nearly jazz in others; I can see folks who love the “world music” sound really liking this CD. Overall this album falls into the “background sound” category–lovely ambiance music, with the musician himself exceptional mainly for his perseverance and courage.
One technical nitpick: the CD was very difficult to get out of the too-tight sleeve. I actually had to rip the opposite side along the seam and shove it out backwards.
Bombino definitely knows how to play guitar, and his music is undeniably exotic and interesting. Unfortunately, for me, words like fun, evocative, and interesting don’t change the final word: forgettable.