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Let Me Tell You About… Bombino

In this new monthly feature our writers will tell you all about an artist they love. This month it’s Adam Rowden’s turn to tell you all about Bombino….

Bombino’s music moves your soul. It paints pictures of Saharan sunsets and people gathered around campfires on moonlit dunes. And most importantly, it makes you want to dance. Steeped in desert blues tradition, similar to that of Malian legends Tinariwen, Bombino adds a rock and roll twist that gives his music a unique groove that is hard not to love. Political and powerful, his music speaks of torment, love, politics and life in general. Yet there is still an unbridled joy to a lot of his output that puts a smile on your face. I cannot understand his words, sung in Tamasheq, so I do have to do a bit of digging online to find translations of his lyrics. But even listening to his albums with no way of knowing what he is saying, just enjoying them for the sound, rhythm and impeccable guitar playing, is something I have spent countless hours doing. Once you start, it really is quite hard to stop.

Bombino is the stage name for the musical artist Omara Moctar, whose given name is Goumour Almoctar. Born in Tidene, Niger, in 1980, Bombino is of the Ifoghas tribe, which belongs to the larger Tuareg tribe that other fantastic groups including the previously mentioned Tinariwen, Tamikrest and the fabulous Tartit are also a part of. The Tuareg people, who have a reputation as great warriors, traders and Saharan explorers, are also known for cherishing music as an important part of their culture.

It was as a young man that Bombino was exposed to music as a means of passing on political messages during a time when the Tuareg people were being oppressed in lots of parts of northern Africa. After joining the Tuareg political party, Bombino met Haja Bebe, a leading guitarist in the organisation who taught him how to develop his natural ability and before long Bombino was invited to join his band.

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After many years living and performing in bands around Niger, after a peace treaty led to the Tuareg people being accepted back into the country, Bombino left to travel to Libya and Algeria. His father, who he fought with often, didn’t want him to become a musician, so he left to pursue his career further afield. It was during his time in Libya that he became exposed to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler and other Western guitarists through local musicians he had become close with. These legendary guitarists clearly had an effect on his style of play and now he seamlessly blends traditional Tuareg desert blues with a more classic rock sound to make a style that is almost completely his own.

After years playing music and working as herder in the desert near Tripoli, Bombino returned to his home nation of Niger and began to make a name for himself. As his popularity grew a Spanish documentary film crew helped him record his first album which became a big hit on the local radio stations. This helped his reputation grow even further and in 2006 he travelled to California, USA, with the band Tidawt to take part in a tour that had been organised by a charity organisation. During his time in the USA, he was presented with the chance to record a desert blues version of the Rolling Stones hit “Hey Negrita” (video below) where he was able to play alongside both Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. The track went on to appear on the 2008 album Stone’s World: The Rolling Stones Project Volume 2, which only helped to increase his popularity further.

After returning to Niger, Bombino found himself in the midst of another Tuareg rebellion which saw the tribe exposed to forceful and indiscriminate countermeasures by the government. After two of his musician friends and fellow band members were killed by government forces Bombino was forced to flee the country. He ended up exiled in Burkina Faso and was almost lost to the world.

Some time later documentary maker Ron Wyman came across a cassette of Bombino’s music whilst he was travelling near Agadez in Niger and was so taken aback by his music that he began trying to track the guitarist down. After a year of searching he eventually found the musician living in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The pair became friends and Bombino ended up playing a part in Wyman’s fantastic documentary Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion, which focused on Tuareg culture and recent political events in the Sahara Desert. Bombino’s music was played throughout the documentary and once filming was up Wyman brought the guitarist to Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin the recording of an album in his home studio. Wyman produced the album, titled Agadez, which eventually came out in 2011 to world wide acclaim.

Here is the beautiful track ‘Kammou Taliat’ from the album Agadez.

After touring the album around the world Bombino then stepped back into the studio to record a follow up to Agadez. And this time his producer was to be the brilliant Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys. Where artists from such differing cultures meet to blend their sounds together there are so many possibilities for calamity and failure. There is the chance for exploitation, for interference from labels and for genuine preconceived notions on both sides to get in the way. However, Auerbach, who had recently finished working on the magnificent Dr John album Locked Down and proven himself a superb producer, allowed Bombino to make that next step embracing his rock and roll edge on the album Nomad, which was released in 2013 by Nonesuch Records. Where Agadez is a more traditional desert blues album, with mellow rhythms and intricate guitar playing, Nomad, is a surging and sprawling soundscape that is at times rampant and visceral and at others calm and enchanting. There is also that classic Auerbach, Black Keys, crunchiness throughout that you can’t help but love.

Here is the opening track from the album called ‘Amidinine’, which perfectly shows off the step up to a more groove led, upbeat and rock and roll sound.

The album was a huge hit, even more so than his previous effort. It debuted at number one on the Billboard World Music Album Chart and the iTunes World Chart and received favourable reviews from publications around the world including the BBC World Service that called it “utterly, utterly fantastic” a sentiment that I can only endorse myself.

Here is the official music video to ‘Azamane Tiliade’ another fantastic track from Nomad.

And just recently, in April this year, Bombino released his latest offering, Azel, which was produced by Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors. This album again offers that perfect blend of mellow, soothing acoustic blues, which is most certainly present on the cracking track ‘Igmayagh Dum (My Lover)’, and his more rampant, rockier side that can be heard on opening track ‘Akhar Zaman (This Moment)’. It is another very accomplished album that even incorporates slight hints of reggae, with slow, plodding baselines popping up in places.

Here is ‘Akhar Zaman (This Moment)’ from the 2016 album Azel.

If you do enjoy these samples of Bombino’s music then I would urge you to seek out more. His albums are truly fantastic and sound better and better the more you listen. And if you’re like me then you’ll get hooked and have them spinning and spinning for hours on end. His story, which is worth investing more time to hear, is inspiring. His music is equally so. Not only is it at times atmospheric and entrancing, wrapping you up in slow rhythms, beautiful vocals, handclaps and warm percussion, but it is also, at other times, rampant and overflowing with joy. Bombino’s music makes you smile. And music that makes you smile should not be ignored.

Words by Adam Rowden

Also, why not check out our last two entries:

Let Me Tell You About… Chris Farren

Let Me Tell You About… Smith Westerns