Bombino’s Saharan Roots Inspire a Different Kid of Desert Rock

Omar “Bombino” Moctar straddles two worlds. A Tuareg, the desert people of the Sahara, Bombino, as he is known, adheres to the centuries-old musical traditions of his people, weaving tales of struggle, hardship, and redemption. Yet, he openly embraces western rock ’n’ roll’s stalwarts: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Santana. Where these worlds collide, richly layered rhythms, captivating vocal accentuations, and deeply affecting intensity ensue.

Though Bombino now combines these two musical styles seamlessly, American rock was the catalyst to his picking up a guitar. A teenager living with his father in Algeria during the 1990s Tuareg Rebellion, Bombino passed the time watching music videos and emulating what he saw.

“From the first things I worked out on the guitar, I was blending Western rock music with Tuareg rhythms,” Bombino explains via an e-mail through an interpreter. “I was trying to play in the same style as my new heroes on the guitar, but I naturally heard the music with a Tuareg ear, so the rhythms I would play were naturally Tuareg. I never made a decision to play this kind of music; this is just what came out of me naturally.
“The attraction of these artists to me was the sense of freedom in their music,” he adds. “I could feel this excitement of feeling totally free — almost like flying — in their guitars, and I fell in love instantly with their music and wanted to dedicate my life to capturing that feeling for myself.”

Freedom is something the Tuareg have long been fighting for in Mali and Bombino’s native Niger, the combined homeland. Oppressed by both governments, the Tuareg have consistently fought for equal rights and change. These struggles are inherent in the traditional music, something Bombino frequently includes in his lyrics.

“This will always be a central theme in Tuareg music,” he explains. “Lately things have been peaceful in Niger, so there are not songs about protest, about rebellion, et cetera. But preserving the Tuareg identity and culture is still an important struggle for us, and we still write songs about this. We write songs to reflect the times we are living in, the emotions we feel and to uplift one another. So we will always be reflecting the political realities, on purpose or just naturally.”

Yet, as Bombino sings in Tamasheck, the true meaning of the songs is often lost on Western ears. Lyrically, perhaps, yet Bombino feels the emotion in his music is strong enough to convey his intentions.

“I feel strongly that the emotions that are expressed in my lyrics are communicated to the audience through the music itself,” he says. “When I am singing about love, about friendship, about the great desert, about preserving the Tuareg way of life — I believe these themes are carried to the audience even if they do not speak a word of Tamasheck.”

Azel is Bombino’s current album, the follow-up to 2013’s Nomad, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. While Nomad carried a powerful Desert-meets-the-Delta vibe, Azel finds Bombino exploring afar. Blending “one-drop riddims” with his own traditional sensibilities, Bombino offers us “Tuareggae,” and admits, that were it not for Auerbach, he might never have reached this juncture.

“The biggest thing I learned from Dan was confidence in myself,” he says. “I went in very nervous, but Dan put me at ease and showed me that he had total confidence in me and my band, even though we were so unlike the other musicians he was used to working with. This gave me a great lift, helped me to feel free to experiment and trust my own abilities as a musician.”

Bombino is scheduled to perform Saturday, October 1, at the Musical Instrument Museum.
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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver