‘Desert blues’ king electrifies music fans [video]

He’s been hailed as one of the world’s best blues guitarists — the “[Jimi] Hendrix of the Sahel,” according to a recent New York Times profile. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and Dan Auerbach of the U.S. blues-rock band The Black Keys are among his fans.

His name is Omara Moctar, but he’s known by an old nickname, Bombino (derived from the Italian word “bambino,” meaning “young boy”). Although he’s based in Niamey, the capital of Niger, he claims Agadez — a desert town in central Niger — as his ancestral home.

Two guitarists wearing Middle Eastern garb playing their instruments (© Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)
Bombino, left, performs with a member of his band. Talent, hard work, and exposure to the U.S. market have fueled his rise as one of Africa’s most recognized musicians. (© Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Bombino’s fluid guitar riffs have taken him from concert venues in North and West Africa to music festivals worldwide, and to U.S. recording studios in Los Angeles, Boston, Nashville and upstate New York.

Recording in major U.S. cities was an important move, introducing Bombino to a widening network of influential musicians and producers who spread the word about his talent.

Connecting with audiences is his greatest reward, Bombino said.

“My goal is to get people to feel the joy of music and to dance,” he told ShareAmerica through a French-speaking interpreter. “I like to make people move. This is what drives me when I am onstage.”

Desert roots

Born to the Tuareg people, a group of nomadic Berbers who have roamed the Sahara and Sahel deserts for centuries, Bombino taught himself to play guitar by listening to bootlegged tapes of Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits.

During his early years in Niger, he performed with local musicians and developed his own version of “desert blues,” a Tuareg musical genre that blends Western rock with a regional style of reggae and traditional rhythms.

He sings in the Tuareg language, Tamasheq, about his desert home and the Tuareg rebels who have fought to preserve their lands and their culture. A longtime icon in his native Niger, Bombino got a big career boost when American filmmaker Ron Wyman heard his music and featured him in a 2010 documentary (Agadez: The Music and the Rebellion).

Collaborations with famous artists soon followed, and The Black Keys’ Auerbach produced one of Bombino’s albums in 2013. “I think all of this has helped to make people more aware of my music, and also [of] the Tuareg people and culture,” Bombino said.

Pursuing a dream

All of Bombino’s albums have topped the iTunes World Music Chart, and his tour dates sell out quickly. But success, for Bombino, means promoting Tuareg values through his music.

“The Tuareg people are very hospitable, generous people, and there is great wisdom in our ancient traditions that we still practice today,” he said. Tuareg culture is known for its poetry and songs, its matrilineal social structure, and its reverence for women and the elderly.

For Tuareg kids (and others) who hope to emulate him, Bombino has words of advice.

“Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot do something. I am a living example that you do not need anything but passion and courage to work very hard to do whatever it is you want to do in life.”