You can feel the years of conflict and pain, and the harsh, blowing sand of the
Sahara Desert in the music of Omara “Bombino” Moctar. But there’s also a
life-affirming faith screaming through his off-the-charts guitar playing that
echo the blues as purely as John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters.
31-year-old Nigerian is likely the most electrifying practitioner of the music
that has come to be known as desert blues: a seamless integration of traditional
Muslim repetitive musical figures reminiscent of fellow African pickers
Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré and boundary-crashing, Hendrix-inspired
Only a few years ago an exile in fear of his life,
Bombino today is a world-wide phenomenon – a fully-fledged, passionate guitarist
in traditional Muslim garb whose new album, Agadez
, is being heralded by
respected music critics as one of the best of the year.
Bombino was born
in a desert encampment adjacent to the village of Agadez in western Niger, as
part of the nomadic Tuareg people. The name, meaning rebels, was given to them
by the Arabs who invaded the land, for their refusal to accept Islam without a
fight. When the Niger government began putting down a mid-1980s rebellion by the
Tuaregs with violent force, Bombino’s family fled to Algeria, where they spent
his formative years.
It was there he picked up his first
“I start to play guitar in 1992 when I was 12 years
old. The first Tuareg rebellion had started and many people left the
country because they were persecuted by the government’s army,” said Bombino in
an email interview with The Jerusalem Post
ahead of his Israel debut next
Tuesday (October 18) at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
“Many of our
neighbors and friends came to stay with us when they fled the rebellion, and one
day someone came with a guitar and left it. I saw it, picked it up and began to
play, and I really loved it. When they returned and took it away, my one
wish became to get my own guitar.”
After the rebellion calmed in 1997,
Bombino returned to Niger, where he got his wish and obtained his first guitar.
He was taken under the wings of more experienced musicians who coined his
nickname Bombino, a play on the Italian word for baby, bambino
. It was then that
his exposure to the Western rock & roll he heard in Algeria and the African
heroes that he emulated began to fuse into his totally original style of
“I had heard Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler and loved them so
much, and their manner of playing. I used to watch movies of them all the time,”
“Then I began studying Ali Farka Toure from Mali, Ibrahim
Abreyboun from the group Tinariwen and Abdallah Oumbadougou from the Niger group
As his guitar prowess grew, so did his legend, and by the
mid-2000s, Bombino had established himself as the king of the Nigerian
equivalent of the Tel Aviv mizrahi cassette music industry, with his music being
distributed grassroots around the region. He was brought to the US by an NGO in
2006 for a short tour, and a recording session with Rolling Stones Keith
Richards and Charlie Watts for a track that appeared on the 2008 album by Stones
saxophonist Tim Riese titled Stone’s World: The Rolling Stones Project Volume
However, the forward momentum came to a halt in 2007 when the second
Tuareg rebellion began in Niger and the government responded with force.
Musicians, especially the “desert blues” guitarists, were among those targeted
for stirring unrest with their music, and two of Bombino’s friends were killed,
forcing him to flee the country for a second time, this time to Burkina Faso
along with many of his fellow Tuaregs.
FATE STEPPED in for the exiled
guitarist when in 2009, Boston filmmaker Ron Wyman heard a cassette of Bombino’s
music from the compilation Guitars From Agadez
, Vol. 2, which was patched
together from performances recorded live in the desert. Wyman, who was traveling
near Agadez while researching a film about the Tuareg people, became obsessed
with tracking down the creator of the mesmerizing music on the tape, eventually
locating Bombino in Burkina Faso.
“Ron got to me through an American NGO
operating in Niger who had brought me to the US. His driver was playing my music
in the car when Ron came to the desert,” said Bombino.
The two hit it
off, and Wyman decided to feature Bombino’s music in his film, which took the
title Agadez - The Music and the Rebellion.
In addition, he invited the
young guitarist to accompany him back to the US and record an album in Wyman’s
home studio in Cambridge. For Bombino, it was a bittersweet experience,
reflected in the music of the resultant album Agadez.
“When I went to
Boston, there was a war in my country and I was exiled in Burkina. I felt alone,
thinking about my country, family and homeland. It was a difficult moment,” he
However, halfway through the recording, the Tuaregs laid down their
arms and the rebellion was quashed in Niger, enabling the exiles to return home
in January, 2010. Wyman followed Bombino to Agadez to complete the album and his
film, both of which were released earlier this year, thrusting Bombino into the
consciousness of music lovers everywhere.
A review by NPR stated that
“the songs on Agadez combine the best traits of Saturday nights and Sunday
mornings, mixing killer solos with delicate repetition.
The most magical
moments come when Bombino finishes a verse – all sung in the Tuareg language of
Tamasheq – and begins to lose himself in his guitar. You can’t help but follow
The film also attracted acclaim, and Bombino has turned into a
tireless promoter for it.
“This film is about the Tuareg society, its
culture, Agadez our homeland, our music. It’s a good thing because it will help
people understand our culture, the political and social problems and learn about
our music and our fight,” he said.
Since his return to Niger, Bombino is
doing his own part to help the Tuareg community achieve equal rights while
maintaining their rich cultural heritage. He is an advocate for teaching
children the Tuareg language of Tamasheq, the local Haoussa language as well as
French and Arabic, all of which he speaks fluently.
“We fought for our
rights, but we have seen that guns are not the solution. We need to change our
system. Our children must go to school and learn about their Tuareg identity,”
“Since the peace treaty was signed, people are now working
together to improve our condition. We have a lot of work to do, but there is
optimism here now finally.
My hope for the future is to make musical
instruments more available in Niger. There aren’t any music shops here, and even
though many young people are playing the guitar, they have problems finding the
instruments. It’s important for the evolution of our music and I want to see
this problem resolved.”
In the meantime, Bombino is doing his part with
his three-piece band by tearing up venues around the world as they tour to
And he’s looking forward to his first visit to Israel
(despite Israel and Niger having no formal relations – diplomatic relations
between the countries were active between the independence of Niger in 1960 and
1973, renormalized in 1996, but terminated by Niger in 2002 – there are no
special travel restrictions between its citizens).
“Niger is a country
where 98 percent of the population is Muslim, but we don’t have any problem with
Israel. I’m very happy to be coming as an artist and as a Muslim and sharing my
music with the Israeli people.”
“Is there anything better than that? I’m
not sure,” he said.
There may not be anything better at this point in
time than Bombino either.Ahead of Bombino’s performance on October 18 at
The Barby Club, Ron Wyman’s film ‘Agadez - The Music and the Rebellion’ will be
screened on October 15 at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv at 10:30 pm.