Two years ago in MacArthur Park during its Levitt Pavilion summer concert series, Tuareg guitarist Omaro “Bombino” Moctar and his four-piece band performed a free concert for a ragtag mix of Angelenos.
Some were regulars looking for shade and surprised to run into live music. Others lay on blankets in clusters, picnicking as fans of the series. A few others understood that Bombino was making his Los Angeles debut.
That evening the electric guitarist, who plays a style of desert guitar rock also practiced by kindred spirits Tinariwen, tore through much of the music from his album, “Agadez,” while the crowd gradually crept closer. By the end, the makeshift dirt dance floor was busy, and Bombino had delivered borderless rock heavy on North African time signatures and rhythms, but universal in its charisma.
Since then the guitarist, 33, has witnessed much on the way to his new album, “Nomad,” which was produced by Black Keys’ singer-guitarist and Grammy Award-winning producer Dan Auerbach. While Bombino was touring the festival circuit and drawing legions of admirers – including a couple more gigs at the Mint in L.A. – the northern Mali region near his home was overrun by Muslim extremists, who devastated the vibrant artistic culture until being repelled by French and African troops. (In the last week, the situation has once again become unstable.)
Bombino issued a statement decrying the extremists’ actions, calling them “devastating beyond words” and declaring: “These invaders are not welcome in any of our lands and we reject their philosophies and their idea of Islam.”
On “Nomad,” his first album for the estimable Nonesuch Records imprint, the musician offers a more transcendent and celebratory philosophy, but not through overt political arguments.
Rather, by setting to song meditations on life, patience, history and heritage – sung in his native Tuareg tongue – Bombino and his band have released a killer document not only for fans of North African guitar music; anyone who has ever appreciated a master player make magic on a Fender while a band, which on “Nomad” is augmented by a few Auerbach’s go-to session men, organizes structures behind him, will find comfort in Bombino’s music.
The opening song, “Amidinine,” begins with the sound of fingers rubbing across guitar strings before jumping into a beefy mid-tempo dance number featuring hand claps, humming organs and Bombino’s bursts of solos. The peaceful closer, “Tamiditine,” with its loping rhythm, deep organ runs and pedal steel lines, feels as if it was recorded for a Hollywood western. In between are nine other songs that convey a collaboration not only between two talented musicians, but between the American South and the African North.
When Auerbach was in Los Angeles with the Black Keys in October, he had recently finished recording Bombino in Nashville, where Auerbach lives. Backstage at Staples Center, Auerbach told me his approach to recording Bombino was to go deep. Not merely record a band playing its songs, but to make an artistic statement.
“All these world music artists always get recorded like they’re artifacts -- like they’re field recordings,” Auerbach said. “I put them in the studio and we recorded a studio record -- and it’s so psychedelic. It’s crazy.” Though the two didn’t share a common language, they were able to communicate enough to make it work.
Auerbach said he marveled at Bombino’s approach. While overdubbing his fretwork to create layers of sound, for example, Auerbach witnessed the guitarist’s precision. “He would triple his guitar leads, and he’d do it note-for-note, first take. It sounds massive. His guitar’s running through fuzz pedals, with double drummers playing at the same time -- lots of percussion.”
His description is accurate. The record is psychedelic, but not in a “Purple Haze” kind of way. More accurately, Bombino and his backing band on “Nomad” create a different kind of trip: one in which simple wonders are celebrated with meandering joy. Sounds move through borders without judgment, drawing on influences not just from American blues but from a vibrant Tuareg sound that taps into Middle Eastern rhythms and structures.
“Imidiwan,” a gorgeous song about a pit stop in the desert, feels like an undiscovered Rumi poem: “The desert, I am in the desert,” sings Bombino, harmonizing with himself as he describes a moment in isolation when he was “full of nostalgia” and without water. “I was sitting, meditating on the problems of the desert,” he concludes. Though he’s thirsty, his focus isn’t on quenching his body, but his Tuareg culture, one stellar guitar line at a time.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit