Sublime intervention

Bombino and the Tuareg guitar revolution.

The guitar: a humble six-stringed instrument to some, but to others, a powerful symbol of revolutionary change or anti-government feeling. It was outlawed in Agadez, northern Niger, during the second Tuareg rebellion of 2007, forcing guitar sensation Omara "Bombino"' Moctar to lay down his weapon and flee to neighbouring Burkina Faso. But after three years of conflict, he eventually returned to Agadez and resumed his quest for musical enlightenment. Having played WOMAD and toured the world this summer with his guitar strapped firmly to his back, Bombino is also the focus of documentary film Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion and is now a global superstar in his own right.

Music and protest have always been synonymous, of course. From the slave spirituals to the time-honoured canon of American folk, where protagonists like Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie used their guitars to mobilise political fervour. Although "protest songs" in their purest form may these days rank disappointingly low on the western mainstream pop agenda, music will always be a potent source of rabble-rousing.

Taking his cue from Tamasheq (Tuareg) godfathers Tinariwen - the "first wave" of musicians who formed in the Libyan refugee camps of the late Seventies - Bombino is at the helm of a "third wave" of Tuareg guitar-led political protest. Born in Tidene, a Tuareg encampment on the outskirts of Agadez in 1980, Bombino first picked up a guitar when he was 12 years old. "My family was exiled to Algeria during the first Tuareg rebellion in Niger and my brothers came back from fighting one day with two guitars and left them in our house," he recalls. "I started to play and even though I didn't know how, I loved the sound. I spent the majority of my time playing until the guitar was taken from me - since then it has always been my dream to have my own."

His messages of unity, strength and determination bring some solace to a community ripped apart by decades of violence.Thanks largely to Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequencies - who have now released three volumes of their Guitars From Agadez series - the intoxicating sound of this sweeping Saharan vista has reached a wider audience. Using cassette recorders, video cameras and microphones, Hisham Mayet and Alan Bishop dish up raw, lo-fi musical exports from all over the world, traditional folk and pop songs unsullied by the hand of European production. In doing so they have been credited with transforming prevailing perceptions about world music.

Hisham Mayet found himself in Agadez just months prior to the uprising of 2007. He had been visiting the city on and off since 2004, documenting the music of Group Inerane, among others. "To say the Agadez scene is incestuous is an understatement," says Mayet. "Most of the groups play together at weddings and parties. You have Koudede Maman, Group Inerane with Bibi Ahmed, Bombino, Hasso, Gountou, a new group called Kader and a few others. Some members of Tinariwen will come and play gigs in Agadez as well; they are all friends and share equipment and resources."

He was hot on the heels of a new 28-year-old guitar shredding virtuoso - Bombino - who was at that time performing with his band Group Bombino and after watching him play at a wedding - one of the primary outlets for Tuareg musicians - in 2009 Mayet took it upon himself to release their first LP. "I suppose the music attracted me initially, but as the second rebellion heated up, one had to consider the political message that the music represents," he says. "This is the most direct way that the Tuareg community can communicate and Bombino represents a fresh face for the struggle of his people and region; charismatic, young, he is also kind, humble and very much loved by everyone he meets. "

Side A of Group Bombino: Guitars from Agadez Vol.2 is fixed in the tradition of acoustic "desert blues", spearheaded by the likes of Ali Farka Touré and Abdallah Oumbadogou, but side B dives head first into the groove-filled waters of psychedelia. Bombino's debut solo LP Agadez, which was produced by filmmaker Ron Wyman and released on Cumbancha records in April this year, topped the iTunes World Music Chart and seizes heavily upon these elements of psychedelic rock. Stirring up an incendiary mix of noisy guitar freak-outs and leisurely romantic ballads, from the soaring electric blues of "I Greet My Country" to the heady twang of "Tar Hani" it is an album entrenched in poignant, life-affirming sentiment and is the ultimate embodiment of liberation through music.

Bombino sees himself as an educator, first and foremost: "I want the world to discover the music of Agadez and to explain our culture, life and our problems to anyone who will listen." His work is a powerful reminder of the unwavering power of song.

Group Inerane play Brixton's Plan B on November 30th. Buy tickets here. For more information on Bombino, click here.

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.