Bombino’s desert blues reflects the struggles of the Tuareg people
10 April 2012 No Comments
April 12 at Lula Lounge
“Sun is burning in the desert. There is no rain in the desertSometimes, music plays a much bigger role than making your commute more pleasant or giving you the beats to let loose on the dance floor on a Friday night. For Omara “Bombino” Moctar and the Tuareg people of the Sahara, it’s the soundtrack to a way of life. “It’s a way to fight and to reclaim things,” he says.
To live in the desert, we need to have a strong morale
We live in the most beautiful space and the hardest space for life” (from the song Tenere)
The Tuareg are a nomadic people who inhabit various areas of the Sahara desert in Northern Africa, related ethnically to the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria. Traveling the desert for 4,000 years on camels — more recently in 4 x 4s — they are known as herders and fierce warriors, who historically fought against both colonialism and the strict application of Islamic rule.
Bombino’s life story runs parallel to the Tuareg’s conflicts and the development of the hypnotic and compelling blues we think of now as Tuareg music or desert blues. He was born into a nomadic tribe in 1980 in Tidene, near Agadez in the country of Niger. The latter city was a key stop along the traditional trade routes in the Sahara that connected the Mediterranean area with West Africa.
One of 17 brothers and sisters, he was enrolled in school as a child but refused to go at first. He went to live with this grandmother, a common custom in their matriarchal culture. Young Tuareg boys are called “arawan n tchimgharen” or “grandmother’s children” — it is considered an honourable term.
Drought in Mali and Niger, where many of the Tuareg live, came in 1984, decimating the region’s livestock and forcing many Tuaregs to leave the region, often settling in Algeria or Libya. Lack of government aid in both Mali and Niger led to the beginnings of the rebellion, and music – along with the guitar they’d recently discovered – played an integral role in spreading the word about the armed revolt and its goals among the Tuareg people. Their style was called ishoumar after the French word “chomeurs” meaning the unemployed but the term soon became synonymous with the rebels and their movement.
The first Tuareg rebellion began in 1990 in both Mali and Niger as they launched attacks against government and military targets. The government fought back and drove many people into exile, including Bombino, who fled with his father and grandmother to Algeria. It was there that he got his personal introduction to the guitar. “Everything began in 1991,” he remembers. “I was living with my family in Algeria during the rebellion. Cousins would come by with guitars.”
When his cousins left their guitars behind, he taught himself how to play in imitation of what he’d heard. “Every time I watched TV, I’d see American or European groups playing.” He lists Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits as early influences. Bombino worked for a time as a herder in Libya and practiced as he watched his flocks.
When Niger became a democracy in 1992, he moved back. “I started to play in front of other people in Niger,” he says. Bombino joined the Tuareg political party and began to develop his craft at the same time, taking guitar lessons and joining a band. That’s where he got his nickname (a variation on the Italian word for baby) — as the youngest and smallest in the group.
Bombino began to work as a professional musician and recorded his first album, gaining some recognition from a Spanish documentary. In 2006, he went to California and ended up recording a single with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones (It appears on the 2008 album by Tim Riese “Stone’s World: The Rolling Stones Project Volume 2″).