By Jonathan Gang
BU News Service
To a pair of Western ears raised on the blues and rock ‘n roll, Bombino’s music sounds at once foreign and familiar. The group, eponymously named after singer and lead guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar, fuses the rhythms and melodies of traditional West African music with electric blues, rock and reggae.
Moctar hails from Agadez, Niger. He is a member of the Tuareg people, a federation of tribes that have lived for thousands of years in the Sahara Desert as nomadic herders. He discovered the guitar and western rock and blues music while living in Algeria after fleeing civil war in his home country in the early 90s. His introduction to a wider American audience came with his 2013 album “Nomand,” which was produced by Dan Aurebach of the Black Keys.
The group’s diverse sound was on full display Friday night at the Sinclair in Cambridge. Bombino initially took the stage with only an acoustic guitar, backed by electric bass and two percussionists on hand drums for three longer, meditative takes on his desert-blues sound. These songs combined Bombino’s fleet-fingered picking with low, chant-like singing in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, creating a hypnotic sound that would surely not sound out of place around a Saharan campfire under the stars.
Suitably warmed, up, one percussionist picked up a guitar and the other moved to a drum kit for a more rocking, electric portion. Bombino’s music relies on simple, repeated riffs usually featuring only three or four chords. However, the rhythmic sophistication of the compositions is staggering, making use of the intricate, shifting time signatures emblematic of West African music to dizzying, thrilling effect. The result is a groove that is at once highly danceable yet remarkably complex.
The heart of the band’s sound, however, is Bombino’s explosive lead guitar. Playing with a bright, lightly distorted tone, his solos dance around the simple chords of his songs with quick bursts of fast-picked notes punctuated by long, patient rests. He will often settle on a particular phrase and repeat it for minutes at a time with slight variations, slowly building tension before releasing in a flurry of effortlessly melodic lines. The result are extended solos that are, much like the band’s music as a whole, a combination of simple elements that add up to something much more than the sum of their parts.