Album Review: Bombino – Azel [Partisan Records, 1st April 2016]

Azel is the name of a small town on the outskirts of the city of Agadez, in Niger, where the only Tuareg school in the country is located. Azel, however, is also a word of common usage in the Tamasheq language: it means namely ‘roots’ or ‘stems’ of a tree, but in the slang it is an expression similar to the American English one ‘That’s my jam!’.

No wonder Bombino chose it as the title of his fifth album, the first released on the independent American label Partisan Records, on 1st April 2016. Bombino is a Tuareg — and of course, the only Tuareg school in his birthplace is dear to him. Moreover, even if the album might have been recorded at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, USA, and produced by Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth, Bombino wants to stress that it is still rooted in his native traditions and style. As for the third meaning of Azel, no further explanation is needed. Listening to the album will undoubtedly make you scream “That’s my jam!”.

Indeed, it is a rhythmic and bouncy album, full of life, and much more mature and refined than its predecessors. It is less melancholic than 2011’s Agadez, and rather it stands between the beat of reggae, the flow of rock, and the sounds of Tuareg music. We need a new word to describe what it is — Bombino suggests we call it Tuareggae.

The second track, “Iwaranagh” (i.e. “We Must”), exemplifies what Bombino means. It is very much rooted in blues; the style of singing comes from the Sahara, but it makes you bounce as you do when listening to Jamaican reggae. The following one, “Inar”, which translates into a much longer “If You Know The Degree Of My Love For You”, contains some elements of American country, but the percussion are undoubtedly African. Same could be said for “Igmayagh Dum” (i.e. “My Lover”).

Very reggae are “Tamiditine Tarhanam” (“My Love, I Tell You”) and “Timtar” (“Memories”). In “Iyat Ninhay / Jaguar” (“A Great Desert I Saw”), an incredible guitar solo starts around the third minute in a bluesy way, but within no more than sixty seconds becomes quick, steady and upbeat.

Azel gives you no resting time. Some songs might start in a slower pace, but they soon spice it up. Perhaps the only exception would be the closing track “Naqqim Dagh Timshar” (“We Are Left In This Abandoned Place”), which keeps the same tempo throughout. Perfect ending.