Thursday, 9 June 2016

A factory in the desert

It's not often at a gig that every person you make eye contact with is grinning from ear to ear. But last night in Camden's Forge that was just what happened. The responsibility lay squarely with Bombino and his band and the electrifying music they conjured up out of seemingly workaday instruments. Every smiling face seemed to be saying "Yes. This is happening. We're sharing a moment". But what was that moment?

Omara 'Bombino' Moctar was born in Agadez, Niger 36 years ago. Military issues in that country saw two of his band members killed and Bombino himself flee to Burkina Faso. So he's got a back story that Catfish and the Bottlemen probably don't have. He's also got a guitar technique that knocks the cream of the current indie crop into a cocked hat.

He's a man very much on top of his game. If he hadn't been singing in Tamasheq then he'd have been playing to a much bigger venue. Of that I'm sure. It's to ours, the audiences, advantage that he's playing the homely Forge. A venue where one can eat a sit down meal whilst watching the band.

I was in a good mood anyway. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was having a catch up with my great friend Paola. We'd had delicious Mexican food in the new Tottenham Court Road branch of DF. I'd washed mine down with a couple of glasses of horchata. We'd wandered slowly up the Hampstead Road, admiring the art deco Carreras cigar factory along the way, on the way to a Camden Town that felt ready for the weekend, ready for summer, ready for Bombino.

It'd been Paola's idea to go to this gig. I have, for many years, been a big fan of African music but my tastes have tended to lie in western and southern Africa. I'd been able to 'appreciate' northern African and Tuareg music if not always truly love it, really feel it.

So I wasn't totally sure if I'd enjoy Bombino. Doubts were put aside almost immediately. Moctar and his band started off seated. Guitar, bass, conga, and calabash drum. You've got to love a calabash! The fact the bassist was wearing what were essentially orange pyjamas, a straw hat, and thick gloves, and yet still looked cool as fuck was a good sign. Better still was that even the opening salvo of acoustic tracks still rocked pretty hard.

Moctar's surprisingly sweet voice stands as a counter to Tinariwen's Ibrahim Ag-Alhabib's more stentorian vocal technique. It also belies his facial vocabulary of tics and grimaces. Not only can he play a bit. He can outgurn many of your more traditional guitar heroes.

Not being versed in Tamasheq he could, for all I know, have been singing about the slashing of the Sunday bus service from Agadez to Niamey. It mattered little. The unveiling of a Tuareg flag later on in the show suggested, perhaps, a political stance.

Influences came, of course, from his desert blues peers and forebears. There's hints of Ali Farka Toure and a nod to the circular grooves of Tinariwen themselves. But also from much wider sources. You'd be hard pressed not to notice his debt to Hendrix but did I really spot a hat tipped in the direction of Phil Lynott, even the odd mannerism borrowed from Springsteen?

The band have been working with Dave Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors so these Western influences shouldn't come as a surprise. What's more interesting still is that they don't simply mix blues and rock but chuck in elements of reggae. Tuareggae they call  it. There's even times when, if you close your eyes, you could be witnessing a particularly noisy section of a My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth gig. If those bands allowed their rhythm section to keep a bottom end of bass fuelled groove.

It's a boring cliche of 'world' music gigs that the audience consists of old white blokes stroking their beards and though there were one or two that'd fit that description Bombino's crowd was a much more mixed affair. Good to see a crowd inside a London venue as diverse as the crowd outside a London venue for once.

So the United Colours of Benetton swayed, they linked arms, they just about started moshing. Moctar always ready to up the tempo if things started flagging. Which they rarely did. Always ready to unleash another blistering guitar attack though never veering off into the wanky world of self-indulgent solos. Always ably backed by powerhouse drumming and fluid slinky basslines. Something for your body and something for your head.

Will Bombino disappear up the arse of blues craftsmanship or will they continue to find newer, appreciative, audiences and carry on expanding their sound outwards? Who knows? But judging by the young women dancing at the front as if they were at the sort of club night I'd be far too old to go to now I'd suggest the latter.

Thanks to Paola for inviting me to such an auspicious, entertaining, and, let's hope, historical evening. Thanks to Bombino and the boys for making me smile.

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