Blues blowin’ in from the desert

Virtuoso Nigerian guitarist Bombino returns to Israel

NIGERIAN MUSICIAN BOMBINO: ‘Harmonically and also rhythmically, there are a lot of deep connections between Arabic music and Tuareg music.’  (photo credit: MADS MAUSTAD)
NIGERIAN MUSICIAN BOMBINO: ‘Harmonically and also rhythmically, there are a lot of deep connections between Arabic music and Tuareg music.’
(photo credit: MADS MAUSTAD)
If you like blues music then you might be curious to know a little more about where the sound, the rhythms and the lyrical mind set come from. After all, without the blues, we probably wouldn’t have had jazz, and it is likely that rock music would never have enriched our lives ei-ther.
If you go along to the Barby club in Tel Aviv on May 21 or 22 (doors open at 8:30 p.m. both nights), you can get yourself a taste of some of the root sounds and spirit that eventually gave birth to the music that made its way into Western consciousness from the Deep South of the United States.
The star on both dates is 39-year-old Nigerian vocalist-guitarist Oumara “Bombino” Almoctar. Bombino, as he is universally known, will lead his long running quartet, with Youba Dia from Mauritania on bass, American Corey Wilhelm on drums and Illias Mohamed from Agadez, Niger on rhythm guitar and backing vocals. Over the years, Bombino’s virtuosity and emotional depth have wowed fans and fellow professionals alike from across the globe, even gaining the admiration of such rock gods as Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant.
Bombino says he is strongly connected to his source-culture, that of the Tuareg community of northwest Africa, but that he also took on other influences. “I began playing the guitar when I was about ten years old,” he recalls. “I was drawn to it very naturally. It was something that felt destined, out of my control. I was inspired mainly by Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits, [interna-tionally renowned Mali vocalist and multi-instrumentalist] Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen.” The latter is a Grammy Award-winning cross-genre band which also feeds off of Tuareg culture, and which has been performing across the globe for 40 years.
Bombino says he had to find his own way through the mysteries of chord structures, harmony and rhythm. “I am self-taught. I’m not sure if that is an advantage – probably not – but I spent a lot of lonely hours and the guitar was my company.” That may have been tough, but it meant that he became very conversant with his instrument. “This gave me a very intimate connection with the guitar,” he observes.
While deeply immersed in his own culture, the Nigerian says he always kept at least one ear trained on the radio. “My music is a direct result of the music I listened to and fell in love with growing up. I would listen equally to local traditional music and local rock and blues music, as well as Western rock and blues music and reggae, and all of these styles of music have influ-enced the music I make today very strongly.”
However, at the end of the day, Bombino is primarily a product of his home patch, and that Tuareg culture continues to shape him as a person and as a musician. That, he feels, has given him a broad perspective on his place in the world, and on his craft. “I can say that my history as a Tuareg has inspired me to believe that I am like an ambassador to the world for Tuareg cul-ture, and this gives me a strong idea of my mission as a musician. It is not just to entertain people, to make them dance and feel joy, though that is very important to me. But, it is also to spread the beauty of Tuareg culture and to encourage the rest of the world to be curious about it and to think more positively of it.”
AFRICAN MUSIC may be at the core of American blues, but for Bombino, it is a two-way street. “I grew up loving Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits and Santana, who were all deeply influenced by the blues,” he notes. “Our traditional music is also very strongly connected to the blues. There are many who say that the blues came directly from Tuareg music that was passed on through the slave trade.”
Of course, slaves were not only taken to North America. Black music from further south also features significantly in Bombino’s musical equation. “I have been a big fan of reggae music my whole life, especially of Bob Marley. This is why I began to bring the reggae music influence into my own music, and eventually the Turaggae genre that my band and I invented devel-oped. It’s something that I find very joyful and fun to play.”
Music originating geographically closer to home also features in Bombino’s artistic reach. ”Harmonically and also rhythmically, there are a lot of deep connections between Arabic music and Tuareg music,” he explains. He also allows himself the freedom to follow his individual muse in his solo spots.
Over the last decade, Bombino has led, or made a telling contribution to, seven albums, mixing traditional material with self-penned number. He feels his art has matured over time. “I think it has simply become more confident, more structured and arranged and with a more defined voice,” he says. The proof of that pudding was evident in January when his latest record, De-ran, was nominated for a Grammy in the world music category.
International success notwithstanding, he never forgets whence he came. That is reflected in his textual work too. “My lyrics are inspired by love – personal love for my family and friends, but also my love for my culture, for the desert that is our home and even for all of humanity. So my lyrics usually promote these themes, and talk about remembering their importance.” Politics, though of the lower case variety, also comes into play. The Nigerian tries to convey political messages through his work, and feels strongly that music – and the arts in general – can help to change the world. “Music inspires people and brings people together. These are the two necessary elements of any political movement.”
The Sahara Desert is also never far away from Bombino, in a geographical and/or spiritual/cultural sense. The vast open spaces of the region – and the emotional impact that has on local nomadic people – also inform Bombino, both as a person and as a musician. The Tuareg ethnic group forms part of the Berber people who have roamed the Sahara for millennia. In his lyrics for “Mahegagh” (“What Shall I Do?”), a track on Bombino’s 2011 release Agadez, the Ni-gerian proffers a plaintive query: “What shall I do? Oh, what shall I do against this endless soli-tude? It is located in the bottom of my heart and lives on it every moment. My friends, do you know what could cool my boiling heart?”
Hopefully, the response from Bombino’s Barby audiences will help to assuage the pining.
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