Giving peace a chance

Acclaimed guitarist Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar is bringing his electrifying brand of Saharan psychedelia to Tel Aviv.

Bombino_311 (photo credit: Ron Wyman)
(photo credit: Ron Wyman)
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.
The 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 psychedelic rock.
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 guitar.
“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 playing.
“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,” said Bombino.
“Then I began studying Ali Farka Toure from Mali, Ibrahim Abreyboun from the group Tinariwen and Abdallah Oumbadougou from the Niger group Takrist Nakal.”
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 2.
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 said.
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 him down.”
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,” he said.
“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 promote Agadez.
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.