Agadez is a city within Niger that lies in the Sahara and serves as the capital of the Tuareg-Berber federation Aïr. Chances are no one reading this has a clue where that is on a map (author included), but for guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar a nomadic camp called Tidene just outside of this urban commune is home.
Sporadic violence and population displacement has been an issues in the region as recently as 2009, but much of Bombino’s upbringing saw armed struggles for Tuareg independence, and the resulting violent suppression by government forces. The escalation of the Tuareg Rebellion in 1990 forced Bombino and family members to seek safe haven in Algeria. Finding a rare positive in an unfortunate situation, Bombino discovered the guitar and began to teach himself how to play.
Under the tutelage of renowned guitarist Haja Bebe, Bombino also discovered Western rock music icons like Jimi Hendrix, which were his true inspiration in starting to pursue playing music.
In 2007 another Tuareg Rebellion broke out and the government banned guitars as part of a comprehensive way of putting down the symbol of rebellion. The result was two of Bombino’s musician cohorts being executed, and he being forced into exile.
Three years later Bombino returned to Agadez and was given permission by the Sultan to perform before thousands of people. A celebration of the end to continued struggles through music unlike most could ever understand. In 2011 he met film maker Rob Wyman, who helped him produce his first album. It debuted at the top of the iTunes World Chart. His next album Nomad was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and debuted at number one on the iTunes World Chart and Billboard World Chart. The traction from the studio carried over to touring, and Bombino made unprecedented appearances at major US festivals like Bonnaroo and Newport Folk Festival. He also opened for Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant and famed gypsy punkers Gogol Bordello.
Now on a worldwide tour in some of the globe’s greatest venues and festivals, Bombino is set to perform twice during the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. In a rare and highly appreciated moment, the non-English speaking Omara Moctar takes the time to connect with the Watch Newspapers in a series of translated responses.
How important was the discovery of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix in your path as a musician?
I was not playing music before I discovered Jimi and the other western artists. This was my inspiration to start playing music myself.
Given your experiences during the most recent Tuareg Rebellion, such as music being banned, music must have an extremely deep connection to you beyond just playing and performing. Tell us how music has impacted your life and how you would describe your connection to the art form.
For me, music is life itself. It is like air, water, or earth. It is fundamental. Music saved me in my earlier life and now it nourishes my family. I owe everything to music.
As someone that has a unique style that many here have never heard before, how do you feel about being welcomed in the US music scene, and playing some of the biggest festivals in the country as a way to spread your music?
It is a great honor and responsibility for me. It is an important part of my mission to create more awareness of Tuareg culture around the world. So for me to have the opportunity to play big festivals and expose people to Tuareg music, language, costumes, etcetera, it is a great feeling.
You have worked with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, arguably one of the biggest rock stars alive right now. How did you initially meet and what was the collaborative experience with him like in shaping your sound?
Dan discovered my music through a friend of his and he contacted my manager, inviting us to record with him in Nashville. At that time I had no idea who Dan was. The experience with him in the studio was incredible. For us it was the first time in a real studio and there we were in one of the best studios in the world with one of the best producers. Dan and I became friends quickly and we had a great time together. He helped bring a strong live energy to the album and brought in musician friends of his to play organ, lap steel guitar, and other things like that, that gave the album interesting colors and textures.
Your recent performance at La Notte Della Taranta in Italy was in front of a staggering 150,000 people. Tell me about that experience.
Wow, that was really one of the most memorable shows of my life. It was with a big ensemble of musicians and so we had to rehearse a couple of times. I had to sing in Italian. For me it was the first time I have ever sang in any language other than Tamasheck. It was really a lot of fun and so cool to look out and see an ocean of people smiling and dancing. It’s a great image for me to remember.
With the success of Nomad in the US, what is next for you in terms of studio work? Any chance of collaborations coming from your journey opening for greats like Robert Plant and Gogol Bordello?
I am not sure yet what will happen for the next album. I have a lot of great material but we have not yet decided where and when and with who we will record. I think my manager is working on this. I am simply focussed on writing new material and making it as good as it can be playing it live at our concerts so when the time comes it will be great in the studio, too.
Listen to Bombino