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Azel is the second studio album recorded in the West by Tuareg Ifoghas guitarist, singer, and songwriter Bombino (Omara Moctar) and fifth overall. It stands in sharp contrast to 2013's Nomad, produced by Dan Auerbach. The earlier album placed Bombino's signature playing style -- directly descended from the Niger master Haja Bebe and informed by Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler -- inside a mélange of lap steel guitar, vibes, and a less syncopated rhythmic framework. While the songs and jams were unmistakably Bombino's, the sound and arrangements reflected the producer as much as the artist. Azel was produced by the Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, a hardcore fan. Recorded in a converted barn in Woodstock, New York, this set delivers the full range of Bombino's gifts as composer, singer, and guitarist. The only Longstreth signature is the bright, canny mix. Bombino's double-tracked guitar is framed by a crack rhythm section. But more than this, the richness in his singing voice, with all its timbral and textural gradations, is accompanied by a female voice in the soulful instrument of Mama "Mahassa" Walet Amoumine. "Akhar Zaman" kicks the set off with the stinging razor tone of Bombino's electric guitar. The syncopated refrains and celebratory circular verses are pushed and pulled between popping tom-toms and punchy basslines as the guitarist fills and punctuates the sung lines. "Iwaranagh" begins in a midtempo Saharan drone as the singer dialogues with himself. Before the first minute ends, desert blues collide with what Bombino calls "Tuareggae." The effect is electrifying, with his guitars aided by a soaring B-3 and the rhythm section moving back and forth between Caribbean rocksteady and Niger blues grooves. The single "Timtar," with its slinky Saharan folk melody, is framed by a dubwise bassline, chunky guitar, and pulsing chords. Bombino also displays his heavy side with the blowout "Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar." This is Saharan rock on stun. The snare is mixed on top of a bluesy hard rock vamp born from a Sahel folk-inspired call-and-response lyric. The drive in Bombino's electric style is appended and multiplied in his acoustic music. The longing expressed on "Igmayagh Dum," the grief and militant solidarity on "Ashuhada," and the desolate loneliness in the closing "Naqqim Dagh Timshar" (We Are Left in This Abandoned Place) are devastatingly beautiful. As a man exiled twice due to political oppression in his homeland, his expression is emotional because it is experiential. Azel is essential, not just for Bombino's growing legion of fans or even those of music from the Sahara region. It is a remarkable example of 21st century popular music. It embraces and intertwines the history of various traditions, from West African folk to blues and rock to reggae -- and expands the reach of them all.

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