While “Desert Rock” as a genre term applies to the dense, high-decibel riffage of Mojave-dwellers Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, one could easily imagine an alternate universe where its practitioners emanate from the nomadic Tuareg tribes of the Sahara bearing monikers like Tinariwen, Group Inerane, and the one-named guitarist and singer Bombino (a.k.a. Omara Mochtar). The musicians called this style “ishumar” (derived from the French word for “unemployed” due to the Tuareg losing their herds in a drought), but it sounds like the rock ‘n’ roll of the desert to me.
Both approaches rely heavily on the guitar and hypnotic rhythmic repetition—that’s where the similarities end. There’s no trace of contemporary metal on the Tuareg musicians, but they don’t sound like Afropop either. Upon first listen, Saharan desert guitar music might just as likely remind one of James “Blood” Ulmer, or the Meat Puppets circa Up on the Sun, as it would King Sunny Ade. This is an altogether harder-wrought passion being communicated. The Tuareg have struggled for centuries against outer colonial forces and strict Islamic rule, so you’re dealing with an extremely resilient people. How could you not want to hear what their guitar jams sound like?
The dirt, grit and humanity on 2010’s Guitars from Agadez, Vol. 2 pack a wallop, especially on the electric, full-band trance inducers. The electric music of the Tuareg is very much about the Big Long Dance of corporeal joy in survival and resistance, and like the North Mississippi hill-country blues (which is also about this dance), its foundation is the drone and the beat, which combine to form a pulsing throb that can go on and on with no need for resolution.
2011’s Agadez boasts a richer studio sound, but all of Bombino’s qualities are in abundance. He is also the subject of a documentary, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, and his appearance presents a rare chance to experience living music from a part of the world where a people have survived against the odds to create art of defiance and contagious joy.
Bombino plays Jazz Fest on Saturday, May 5 at 2:40 p.m. in the Blues Tent.