The mesmerizing 2013 album, “Nomad,” by Bombino, begins with the sound of a revving engine, perhaps the guitarist’s cheeky way of saying that he’s going to take the listener somewhere really special. And so he does, via soulful, intense songs which center around his fabulous guitar playing. This album is full of contradictions: it is called Nomad yet about much more than nomadism; it is increasingly popular abroad yet not ultra-famous in his home country; it inspires imagination, yet complicates the global perception of the Sahara. It is music that reflects the changing contemporary situation in Niger, and the country’s complicated relationship with the rest of the world.
Bombino (also known as Omara Moctar, and born Goumour Almoctar) is a Tuareg musician from Agadez, the northern, Sahara region of Niger. Singing in the Tamasheq language, he’s part of a long lineage of Sahara rock musicians (such as Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré). At a time when Agadez is increasingly depicted as a site of danger and terrorism, Bombino has created an album that shows the world the multiple, and often joyful sides of life in the region.
The tracks of Nomad feature guitar melodies, gentle vocals and percussion, and range from exhilarating (“Amindinine”) to blissful and lovely (“Iwidiwan” and “Tamiditine”). As Arnaud Contreras recently pointed out in a post for this blog (picture of Bombino above is also Arnaud’s), life for people in the Sahara today is much more than nomadism. Despite this album’s title, songs on Nomad encompass themes that reflect multiple aspects of social and cultural life. “Zigzan” is about patience and “Tamiditine” is about the thrill of new love — here’s a stripped-down version of that song, recorded in Portland last year.
There’s also “Iwidiwan,” a song about friendship and homesickness, which resonates in a region where more and more people engage in migrant work. Bombino says he feels for the country’s struggling, nearly dead tourism industry, and promotes the stunning beauty of Niger in the rousing “Her Tenere.”
Bombino also has a compelling personal life story, depicted in Ron Wyman’s 2010 documentary, Agadez: The Music and the Rebellion, which profiled the musician and Tuaregs in Niger. In 2007, during a rebellion, Bombino fled to Burkina Faso. After the violence had waned, he returned to Niger, and in early 2010, he performed a concert in front of a mosque in Agadez, to celebrate peace and unity in the country. Today, Bombino is continuously outspoken about the need for understanding and dialogue. “What is important,” he says over the phone between concerts in Pittsburgh and Michigan, “is making connections between people.”
And he has made connections with people around the world: recently achieving great popularity in the international music scene, booking gigs across Africa, Europe, South Asia, North America, Australia and receiving media attention from NPR and Rolling Stone. In French, he jokes that the album title Nomad isn’t just about a meandering lifestyle, but it reflects his own constant international travels.
Writing about Bombino’s work, critics tend to stress two characteristics: its similarity to familiar, American artists, and its ability to “transport” the listener to the Sahara. Reviews often lead with the fact that Bombino collaborated with Dan Auerbach (of the rock/soul band the Black Keys) to produce this album in Nashville. These comparisons are there: yes, any fan of the Black Keys will love Bombino. And yes, this album shows the dynamic, exciting work that results from fruitful international collaborations, and fusions of soul, rock and blues. Yet — for Bombino’s charming presence, moving melodies, for his role in contemporary Tuareg society, his work is so special, it deserves recognition beyond constant comparisons to American rock icons. He may have Hendrix-esque moves, but he’s more than the “Hendrix of the Sahara.” Although listeners may feel transported to somewhere else, this music also tells the stories of Saharan culture more complex than the ones in the popular media.
Arnaud Contreras also highlighted that Bombino enjoys an enthusiastic fan base among youth in the Agadez region of Niger, suggesting that Bombino’s energetic dance moves and stage presence are perhaps the most admired and emulated today. In his New Year’s Eve concert last year at the Niamey’s swank Gaweye hotel, the dance floor was packed with youth dressed in their best and brightest, grooving to his sounds into the morning hours.
However, interestingly, despite exploding international fame, Bombino isn’t necessarily a household name throughout Niger, particularly in areas that are Sahel rather than Sahara, and in communities where the Tamasheq language isn’t widely spoken. A randomly selected college student at Niamey’s Abdou Moumouni University isn’t certain to know his name. He does not appear on local television as much as other Nigerien artists, like Tal National. Bombino’s growing popularity throughout the world, yet scattered popularity throughout Niger, reflect global inequalities in access to media. While listeners around the world can quickly tune into and adore his music via Spotify, all youth in Niamey don’t necessarily have access to technology that allows them to enjoy the work of musicians popular in other regions of the country.
Bombino speaks articulately about the challenges that Niger faces: striking poverty and the growing threat of climate change. Yet he is optimistic, insisting that despite the problems, the recent years have been among Niger’s best. Your year will be among your best if you download this album and start listening to it immediately, catch him on tour. If you’re like me, and have the embarrassing habit of playing an album on chronic repeat; fear not, this music is so wonderful that no one will judge you for playing it over and over and over again.