NIGER: Nomad - Bombino
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Dubbed ‘The Sultan of Shred’, Bombino earns this title in this epic second studio album as he simultaneously shows off modern Tuareg culture and his musical skills
Musicians are often capable of making powerful comments in the lyrics of their music that elevate the beautiful sound they make into something more than just ‘enjoyable’. Whilst that is certainly the case for Nigerien guitarist Omara "Bombino" Moctar, who regularly sings about the political issues facing his Tuareg people, it is in fact a remark he made an interview with ArtistXite that really resonated with me. Bombino said: “I do not see my guitar as a gun but rather as a hammer with which to help build the house of the Tuareg people.” Whilst the image that he paints is rather poetic, it is made even more pertinent when one takes into account the lengths Bombino had to go to keep up his passion.
“...Bombino is the only other artist I have heard who has managed to recreate this same instinct of absolute certainty within me that he is revelling in the joy of every moment the guitar is in his hands.”
The Tuareg people have a proud heritage and tradition that makes them distinctive from many other ethnic groups in the region. Mostly based in Niger, the nomadic desert folk can also be found across the Sahara, primarily in Mali and Burkina Faso. The Islamic group practice their religion in a non-fundamentalist manner. They have a very egalitarian society with a particular emphasis on the role of the matriarchy. Women play a critical role in everyday life and it is in fact Tuareg men, not women, who cover their faces from the age of 25. Whilst Berber music is popular across the Maghreb, including for the Tuareg, their musical traditions were somewhat revolutionised by Grammy Award winners and rebel fighters, Tinariwen, who introduced a fusion between traditional styles and Hendrix-esque electric guitar playing.
This meant that a fertile ground had been laid by Tinariwen to enable the electric guitar to become a symbol of rebellion and importance to modern day Tuareg culture, creating a vacuum for Bombino to fill. Whilst Tinariwen faced their own problems with people’s disapproval of the guitar in 2012, when Islamist militants Ansar Dine banned music in northern Mali and specifically targeted the group in their quest to remove what they saw as 'satanic', a few years prior to this Bombino was put into a similarly difficult situation. Bombino first heard the guitar during the rebellion of 92/93, when he was 12 years old; yet almost poetically for Bombino, during the Tuareg rebellion of 2007-09, the Nigerien government banned guitars for the Tuareg, in an attempt to quash rebellion. Motivated by this and the fact that two of his friends were executed, Bombino defiantly played guitar in the bush while in exile in Burkina Faso.
Bombino sticks two fingers up to oppressors of the Tuareg simply through the pride in which he shows off his virtuoso guitar skills on every track, however, I believe there are some that stand out to me even more than others. Personally speaking, I would nominate Azamane Tiliade (The Era of Young Girls) as the best song on the album simply for the incredible level of guitar talent on display that is to be both admired and enjoyed. I previously said of the late Algerian raï star Rachid Taha that one can almost hear his smile within his music as there is almost a mischievous quality to his personality that is emitted through his work. Thus far, Bombino is the only other artist I have heard who has managed to recreate this same instinct of absolute certainty within me that he is reveling in the joy of every moment the guitar is in his hands.
As phenomenal as his guitar playing is, it would not be fair to totally focus on this. Bombino’s lyrics are equally powerful, often touching on political themes. He speaks about practical issues facing his community such as in Her Tenere (In the Desert) and Aman (Water), yet also addresses deeper themes such as the need for unity in the Tuareg diaspora in Adinat (People). There are songs like the more which speak in broader, more universal terms that are not just applicable to the Tuareg, such as the acoustic Zigzan which address the notion of patience or Imidiwan which speaks of friendship. Lyrically I believe that perhaps the most powerful track is Imuhar (Free Men) – another example in which his lyrics act as a call to action to his people. What I find so beautiful about the lyrics when translated from Tamashek to English is that they seem to tackle the concept of freedom and liberty within the rather unique context of the nomadic lifestyle that they aspire to leave, despite having for many years been subjugated to borders and nationalist rule thanks to both colonialism and its after effects:
What good is it to have Freemen who sleep in this world of suffering
Wake up, my people Straighten up, my people Confront the difficulties of your current situation A long road awaits you
What good is it to have Freemen who sleep in this world of suffering Freemen suffering shows us that times have changed
Whilst I cannot implore you more than I have to check out Nomad. One extra titbit of information that might intrigue you further is that the album was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Yet, what is brilliant about this collaboration is that unlike many Western stars attempts to work with artists from different cultures is that Auerbach seems to have not interfered with Bombino’s style but rather just assisted him with production. One cannot hear any overt influences of The Black Keys indie/garage rock style on Nomad, instead just the bluesy excellence of Bombino and his Tuareg culture.