The strings of a guitar strummed in a mesmerizing way, following the rhythm of percussion instruments and accompanied by a melodic voice that sends shivers down your spine with inspiring words in Tamasheq. These are the ingredients of the raw desert blues of Bombino, which transform his music into what it is today: simply phenomenal. On 2 April 2013, incidentally my birthday, Nonesuch Records released his second solo album entitled Nomad. Speaking of a fantastic birthday gift! As a big fan I didn’t hesitate for a second to finally go and see this artist performing live on 10 April in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, Belgium, for the first time in my life.
A proud Targui
Omara “Bombino” Moctar has gone a long way to arrive where he is standing now. He was raised near Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara desert in Niger. His family belongs to the Ifoghas Touareg tribe, which originates from the Berber people in North Africa. This nomadic tribe are considered noble traders travelling the Sahara. The desert is their world and presents them with the freedom they desire. For years they have been fighting against colonisation, to protect their independence and rich cultural heritage.
In 1990, we witnessed the outbreak of a first rebellion. The Tuareg community felt oppressed by the government and they organised themselves into groups of rebels to defend their rights. Omaras family fled to Algeria, an event that would change his life for good. One day, some cousins who had joined the rebels came to visit. They brought along a guitar, and Omara immediately felt a great attraction towards the instrument. His love for the guitar was an unquestionable fact.
From ‘little child’ to big star
Omara taught himself the art of playing the guitar and tried to imitate songs in typical Tuareg music style, called ishumar. Tuareg rebels use these songs to express their demands and clarify the purpose of the rebellion. The music is based on guitar riffs creating a relaxed atmosphere, accompanied by a melancholic voice that rocks you on the rhythmical sounds of the percussion instruments. Other famous bands such as Intayaden and Tinariwen from Mali also represent this kind of desert blues music.
A few years later, Omara returned to Agadez and a talented Tuareg guitar player named Haja Bebe invited him to join his band. Given the fact that he was the youngest musician of the group, the other members nicknamed him Bombino (a variation on the Italian word ‘bambino’ meaning little child). Bombino also started to watch videos of famous guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. In this way, he became very proficient in playing the guitar and grew to be a well-known artist in Agadez.
Armed with a guitar
2007 marked the beginning of the second Tuareg rebellion. The government in Niger responded with an iron fist, in an attempt to strike down the uprising. Bombino joined the rebels, considering his music the only means to fight for universal peace. But the government stated that playing the guitar was prohibited by law. It was considered as a rebellious act. Two musicians of Bombino’s band were murdered, a striking example of the harsh measures taken by the government. Bombino fled the country and ended up in Burkina Faso, where he spent several years in exile.
Two years later, filmmaker Ron Wyman decided to bring our talented musician out of the shadows. He presented him to the world by granting his music the central role in a documentary about the Tuareg: Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion.
Peace sealed with a music concert
When the Tuareg community finally put down their weapons, they received permission to return to Niger. As a celebration of the newly acquired peace, Bombino staged a concert just outside of the main mosque in Agadez. More than a thousand people were dancing alongside Bombino and his band members. Meanwhile, Ron Wyman was completing his documentary. Shortly after, the filmmaker also produced Bombinos first solo album entitled Agadez.
Sahara blues and guitar rock
And now, finally, I am able to admire Bombino on the stage of the Ancienne Belgique, performing new songs from his second solo album Nomad. The CD was recorded in Nashville in the USA in close collaboration with Dan Auerbach, front man of The Black Keys and last year’s winner of the Grammy Award for producer of the year. The lights in the concert hall are dimmed, only a single spot is shining a magical white light onto the stage. Bombino is sitting on a chair in front, with a white scarf nicely draped around his shoulders and his beloved acoustic guitar in his hands, ready for action.
Accompanied by his three band members, he starts out gently playing the first notes of the evening. The crowd is immediately being carried away into a melancholic atmosphere. I recognise the cheerful song Imidiwan, in which Bombino sensitively strums the guitar while paying tribute to his Tuareg identity: imidiwane, imidiwane, wirhintitewegh awa ha nilmade (my friends, my friends, let us not forget this heritage that our parents have left us). A hand drum takes over the rhythm in the next song, Zigzan. A threatening undertone echoes through the room and grasps the audience into a trance. A song about the need for patience to overcome the obstacles of life. When I take a look around me, I see several people standing there with eyes closed, enjoying the interaction between the guitars on stage.
Then, Bombino switches from acoustic to electric guitar and thus breaks down the desert blues’ hypnosis. The impressive big drums in the back of the stage are now also being put into use. Bombino brings a whole lot of energy to the stage by jumping up and down together with his band members. Songs such as Adinat and Imuhar bring an atmospheric rock into the room, but also convey a clear message to the public: adinat, nine kawanegh, maha naghrwane, bas nifrag tidawt garena (people, let us see, what is happening to us, we are no longer able to unite) and ayitma yofa anikir, nikiss sandade (wake up my people, straighten up, confront the difficulties of your current situation). Meanwhile, Bombino alternates between inspirational vocal parts and impressive guitar solos.
A couple of songs from the previous album Agadez are to be found on the playlist too, such as Tenere and Adounya. The audience seems to know Bombino’s music quite well, judging from their vigorous humming along with the guitar melodies. The first rhythms of my favourite song on the new album, Her Tenere, bring me to higher spheres. Whenever I listen to the words tenere, hegh tenere, usuf yigane (the desert, I am in the desert, full of nostalgia), I can almost feel the desert sand creeping between my toes. The voice of Bombino carries the audience far away, across the Sahara straight to Niger, and even further into the rest of the world. Meditating on life, universal words vibrating inside the fingertips of everyone present.
I have to admit that I am experiencing a surreal perception: men dressed in a traditional Tuareg outfit and tagelmust, a little shy, but smiling while holding an electric guitar in their hands. But it remains magical to see and hear. The last song Azamane Tiliade is the absolute highlight of the evening. Some great guitar riffs back up Bombinos beautiful voice which touches everyone’s heart. For a moment the band leaves the stage. Upon returning for an encore, they start jamming and play the last battle between the guitars of the evening. And so the concert finishes in an exuberant rocking way. An overwhelming applause erupts, but Bombino and his fellow musicians remain humble and thank the audience with a sincere “merci et à la prochaine fois”.
Nomad, always on the road
As the name of his new album suggests, Bombino refuses to stand still and has the courage to go down new paths with his music. The successful collaboration with Dan Auerbach proves that this talented guitarist has gained a firm place on the world music stage. The next few months, Bombino will be heading towards The Netherlands, Paris, London, Spain and America inter alia.
Once again, Bombino managed to convince me with an intriguing new album. My train to Bruges being delayed for an hour in the middle of the night, and the rain pouring down from the sky could not temper my good mood after the concert. The Sahara blues kept me in their mesmerizing grip for the rest of the week, the ideal state of mind to jot down an article praising Bombino.
Photos: Bombino @AB © Redouan Tijani
This post is also available in: Dutch