Omara Moctar has spent his life on the run. In 1990, at age 10, the Saharan-born guitarist, who grew up in an encampment of nomadic Tuaregs in northern Niger, escaped to Algeria with his family at the outbreak of a Tuareg uprising against the government. It was the start of a cycle of exile and return for the young musician. Several times over the next two decades, Moctar would come back to his birthplace of Agadez, only to flee again at the eruption of another violent rebellion. Now known as Bombino, the 33-year-old desert-blues ambassador is uniquely equipped to handle the displaced existence of a rising international rock star. As a member of an ethnic group fighting for its independence, however, that growing fame comes bundled with extra responsibility.
“I think, besides providing for my family, this is the biggest pressure that I put on myself,” writes Moctar via email, responding through a translator. “You can see while traveling around the world that it is rare for people to know about Tuareg culture. I think every Tuareg feels responsible in some way to explain our culture and our living situation to others who are unaware of us and our struggles.”
Unlike most Tuaregs, Moctar has a broad platform from which to do so. With a boyish face belying his nickname—a perversion of “bambino,” the Italian word for “child”—Bombino arose in 2011, following a path to global recognition paved by his heroes, the Malian group Tinariwen. A documentary on his return to Niger in 2009 presaged his official debut, Agadez. Showcasing his mesmeric guitar playing, steeped in the tradition of African guitarists such as Ali Farka Toure but also echoing the influences imprinted on him during his youth in Algeria and Libya—traces of Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler and Jerry Garcia—the record introduced Moctar to the world, and won him some influential fans.
One such fan was the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who offered to produce Moctar’s next album. Released in April, the appropriately titled Nomad is at once a display of exhilarating musicianship and hypnotic control. Moctar sends fiery spirals of notes circling around polyrhythmic dance grooves, handclap percussion and fuzztone organ, and the effect is utterly entrancing, like staring at a desert campfire. Sung in the Tamashek language, the political strife contained in Moctar’s chanted lyrics dissolves into the embers, but not all is lost in translation. Auerbach—who Moctar calls “my cousin in blues music”—imbues the record with a muscular, modern rock sound, communicating the experience of its creator to an audience that can’t understand a word.
And it is, indeed, a personal experience. While Moctar doesn’t ignore his responsibility to his people, the music of Bombino is, unavoidably, a reflection of himself—what he’s seen and, especially, where he’s been.
“I am just trying to
express myself, simply put,” he writes. “I do not consider myself a
representative of other people. I am not a politician and I don’t wish
to be one. I have my own observations, my own opinions, my own emotions.
These will come out in my music, and I think there will be an effect
for the Tuareg people, if only a very small one. But I am not trying to
speak on behalf of anyone but myself.”
SEE IT: Bombino plays Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., with the Last Good Tooth and Mbrascatu, on Sunday, May 26. 9 pm. $20. 21+.