It's difficult being a touring musician. It isn't a conventional choice of career, and it certainly isn't stable. More often than not, it's a tough path, if it's the one you choose to walk. But imagine how much more difficult that path might be if the sort of music you're compelled to make has been discouraged by your family — or even outlawed by your native country's government.
Such is the story of Omara Moctar, a Niger-born guitarist and member of the nomadic Tuareg people — the primary inhabitants of the Sahara region of Africa, who have seen countless conflicts throughout their storied history. Nicknamed Bombino (a variant on "bambino," the Italian word for baby) by his guitarist mentor and fellow Tuareg Haja Bebe, the 33-year-old brings a message of peace and understanding, and he does it using a form of electric-guitar music that marries the desert-blues of his people with the psychedelic flourishes of Western rock 'n' roll.
"We in Niger love music in the same way that Americans love music," Bombino tells the Scene via translator. His mother tongue is the Tuareg language of Tamasheq (though he also speaks some French), and his tour manager translates for him English questions submitted via email. "Tuareg guitar music was banned in Niger years ago because it held so much power. It was a very important part of our popular culture, and it became a threat to the government because of its power."
In 2009, Sublime Frequencies — a Seattle-based record label that charges itself with "acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers" — released Guitars From Agadez, Vol. 2, which features rough but warm field recordings of Bombino and his band, then called Group Bombino, hammering away at hypnotic grooves. After that came 2011's Agadez, a proper studio album named for the guitarist's hometown, and the first release as just "Bombino." Agadez features often-lengthy, Santana-like riffs and runs undergirded by resounding, cyclical hand percussion.
At some point along the way, Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach heard Bombino's music and reached out to him, offering to produce Bombino's next record at Auerbach's own Easy Eye Sound here in Nashville. The result was April's Nomad, a notably more succinct but still richly textured collection of guitar-centric arrangements.
"He was a very relaxed producer," Bombino says of Auerbach. "I did not expect that. I was expecting him to want to control the sound, but really he just made sure that there was the right energy and the right equipment and then he just let the musicians play like we were playing in front of a crowd. He had a great natural sense of the balance he needed to execute as a producer for music like ours, because our music should not be controlled."
Bombino notes that while he wasn't familiar with The Black Keys before being approached by Auerbach, he has since come to see the Keys' output as "a cousin" of his own music. Along with readily apparent influences like guitar gods Santana and Jimi Hendrix and fellow Saharan folk acts Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen, Bombino also cites Dire Straits as an influence. It makes plenty of sense: Like Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, Bombino builds his songs around the clean, tinny sounds of his Stratocaster, circling around again and again to revisit tastefully played, infectious riffs. And Auerbach's straightforward, light-on-frills production keeps Bombino's expert playing right in the center.
As far as his lyrics — although none are in English — Bombino hopes his message transcends the boundaries of language: "I hope that the most important message of my music is peace," he says. "I want to encourage people towards peace and joy and away from war and conflict. So I try to remind my brothers and sisters that war will not be an answer to your problems."
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