Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gig: Bombino

Bombino (Kwesi Immanuel)

Lula Lounge. Tuesday, July 12, 2011.

It felt a little strange that I was at Lula — a likable joint that I don't get to all that often — two nights in a row. The previous night had been for a post-Afrofest club show from Zimbabwean legend Thomas Mapfumo. This night would be for a rising star from the other side of the continent — it was a little eye-raising to me that he hadn't also been in town the previous weekend for Afrofest.

Or maybe that would be because folks round here just hadn't caught up to him yet. As showtime rolled around, there were still tables to be had and a quiet vibe prevailing. That at least gave a conducive atmosphere for a quick opening set from Kwesi Immanuel. Local singer-songwriter Immanuel has come to performance later in life, after (by his own admission) "getting sick of letting fear override my desire to play live".

A bit of shy tentativeness was evident in his demeanour. Not a big chatterer, his stage presence was almost as downcast as his music, but this quick five-song set, drawing from his Love You More album, was rather good stuff. Accompanied only by his guitar, Immanuel played some stripped-down material with a bit of a mournful air, showing off a nimble voice that could effortlessly slip into a higher register. This could slip in nicely beside the mopey indie-rock troubadour of your choice, given its minor-key sort of sadness — and with the quaver in his voice he could knock a Daniel Johnston song out of the park.1

Listen to a track from this set here.

There was a quick turnover after that, and still not much more of a crowd for the headliner. Bombino is the stage name of Omara Moctar, born near Agadez in northern Niger. So though he comes from a different country than most of the "desert" guitar players, he comes from the same Tamasheq cultural background as his more renowned brethren in Mali such as Tinariwen or Terakaft, as well as, I'm sure, hundreds of groups that we don't know about on this side of the world.

Moctar was getting some attention for his Agadez album, although the sound of that is somewhat more restrained than his live sound. Well, to some extent — to open the show, the youthful-looking Moctar took the stage and played his acoustic guitar sitting down, accompanied only by a hand-drummer to start. So there was a quieter vibe, but right from the get-go there was that delicious guitar sound — the mode here is "hypnotic". That confident guitar playing was accompanied by his low vocals, which would be punctuated occasionally by whoops, slightly reminiscent of the ones in Springsteen's "State Trooper".

The quiet part of the set lasted until fourth song "Tabsekh Dalet", when the rest of the band (bass and second guitarist) filed on stage to segue into the a full group number, the percussionist taking his place behind the drum kit. And immediately this was something else entirely: a few people got up to dance as the band settled into a long, steady groove, which is this music's most distinguishing feature.

It's should be stressed how different the music is from our conventional pop. To hook people in 'round these parts, this music is compared to everything from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page. And while it also gets tagged as "African blues", that really only makes sense in a few points of overlap (such as shades of John Lee Hooker's infinite boogie-woogie). Taking more of a modal approach, the songs aren't based on melodies following from chord changes. Indeed, I watched the rhythm player, just to see how long he could sit on one chord — and the answer is seemingly forever. That gives the music its drone-y undertone, but Moctar's nimble playing is also picking out a lot of variations within that chord — all while the beat propels things along.

Once Moctar switched over to his electric guitar — just a basic black strat — and stood up to play, this was immediately much more "rock hero". And even more fantastic. Now, that same steady structure gives lots of room for basically continuous nimble soloing. It was humbling to see how much he could pull from that unadorned guitar1 and as drone-y as it is, there's still room for lots of tunefulness, as seen in catchy melodies like "Imuhar", which was the first indisputably awesome peak of the night.

After a couple more extended groovers (these songs are not usually quick) the main set ended with one that stretched past the fifteen-minute mark, the drummer sitting in a superb pocket and creating a gloriously self-contained time-stopping groove. Returning for an encore, the band played the superb "Tar Hani", which might be the closest Moctar has yet come to rock dynamics, leaning into the song's surging riff.

All told, a fantastic show. The only negative was the fact that the room was less than half full. Moctar would pack in a bigger crowd in a cozier room his next time through town. And now, his steady work on the festival and club circuit in North America looks to have paid off with a new album forthcoming on a larger label with a celebrity producer attached. I suspect the next time he's in town there'll be a new wave of folks out to see him.

I had originally posted a track from this set here, and now you can check out another here.

1 Kwesi Immanuel will be opening for Cody ChesnuTT on February 10, 2013 at Wrongbar.

2 All Moctar had attached to his guitar was a tuner; the rhythm player, plugged straight into his amp, didn't even have that much.

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