Video: Watch Bombino Perform Desert Rock from the Sahara

Playing music is often more than just an act of art. Sometimes, it’s an act of resistance.

For Bombino, one of the most famous and virtuosic guitarists hailing from the Sahara Desert, for a long time simply playing music, regardless of the subject matter of his songs, was an act of political defiance.

Bombino is of the Tuareg, or Kel Tamasheq, nomadic ethnic group. After years of marginalization and disenfranchisement in the region, there were several Tuareg rebellions to demand more rights, autonomy, and access to economic wealth in the region, particularly in Mali and in Bombino’s home country of Niger.

During one of these rebellions in 2007, the Nigerien government banned the guitar among the Tuareg, as it was seen as an instrument of rebellion. Two musicians in Bombino’s band were killed, and he was forced into exile. (It should be noted that this was actually the second time he had to flee the country. The first was during an earlier rebellion in his childhood in the early '90s.)

But long before this, Bombino had moved around a lot. At one point, he even worked as a herder near Tripoli, Libya, and according to his own bio, “spent many hours alone watching the animals and practicing his guitar.”

In 2010, when peace had returned to Niger, Bombino returned home. It was around this time he caught the ear of Western musicians and record producers. He went on to put out an album called Nomad, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys in 2013, and his most recent release, Azel, which was produced by Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. These nods from American rock stars have helped introduce Bombino to a whole new audience, paving the way for a slew of shows throughout the year in Europe and North America.

From here in our urban desert in the American Southwest, it’s hard not to think about the connection between the harsh desert landscape and the sound of the music that comes from there. The style of music Bombino plays is often called “desert rock” or “desert blues” in the West, and is predominantly played by Tuareg musicians. Stylistically, it’s marked by a sharp, clean tone, fast and technical playing, and the use of space in the music.

While we may refer to it as desert rock, a more apt description is “assouf,” a deeply meaningful concept that is nearly impossible to translate or understand if you’re from outside the culture. It’s related to a state of solitude, longing, nostalgia, homesickness, and a feeling that you get from being alone in the desert.

But in the political context Bombino comes from, the music isn’t just about its aesthetic qualities. There’s also an inherent power to the music itself. The act of continuing to pick up a guitar after those around you have been killed for doing so is perhaps one of the purest forms of passive resistance. While musicians have long held the role of storyteller and history-keeper, in some cases they also carry with them the privilege and responsibility of spreading messages of hope, peace, and collective mourning. They must find ways to continue to advocate for their rights and the rights of their people under the thumb of oppression.

New Times caught up with Bombino when he played a concert at the Musical Instrument Museum in October. Here, he shares his thoughts on desert music, the struggles intrinsic to living in a place with no water, and his role as a musician in the struggles of his culture, all while he plays music from one desert in another.

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Sarah Ventre