Bombino’s Music Is a Refugee’s Plea for Peace in the Universal Language of Pop

Omara “Bombino” Moctar was born on New Year’s Day, 1980, in Tidene, Niger. A member of the Ifoghas tribe in the Kel Air Tuareg Federation, he’s been a refugee for much of his life, fleeing drought, famine, and war in his home country. But the only weapon he’s ever picked up is an ax, the kind with six strings that Jimi Hendrix used to battle his own demons.

His own perspective is changing — now an internationally touring musician, he’s worked with the likes of Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Dan Auerbach, and Nick Zinner, and seen the world outside the desert. But the messages on his new album Azel, produced by Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth and out Friday on Partisan, still carry hope. Hope for his people, who still bear the burden of post-colonial marginalization, but also for the refugees of the world; people forced to leave everything behind in search of the food, water, and safety that so many of us take for granted.

I meet Bombino in Austin, Texas, in the midst of promoting Azel with shows and interviews at the 2016 SXSW Music festival. He speaks both French and his native Tamasheq; my questions and his answers are translated into French by his manager, Eric Herman. In the living room of a rented house, instruments are strewn about, and Bombino arranges his lanky frame on a small couch, sipping tea.

He speaks of his first exposure to the guitar; he taught himself how to play on a six-string left behind by cousins in the house where he stayed in Algeria, having fled Niger in 1990 during the Third Tuareg Rebellion. He wore out his cousins’ cassettes of Hendrix, Dire Straits, and Mali blues man Ali Farka Touré, and watched videos of them playing live. Bombino’s music is based in the traditional Tuareg rhythmic structure and aesthetic, but the influence of those rockers is obvious — especially on the solos — as is the funk and reggae he pulled in along the way.

Bombino performs outside Waterloo records in Austin, Texas, March 19, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Bombino performs outside Waterloo records in Austin, Texas, March 19, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.

When Moctar returned to Niger, it was as a musician. Still a youngster, he joined the band of a local musician named Haia Bebe. It was Bebe that would give the name Bombino, derived from the Italian word for “small child.” The desert that the Tuareg occupy is hard to govern, and by its nature quite lawless. Music was passed around on cassettes, all of it in Tamasheq, much of it with guitar. Beyond just expression, the music was a form of communication, media that connected disparate tribes across the vast expanse of desert that the Tuareg occupied. But the government, especially in Niger, with wounds still fresh from the 1990 rebellion, saw it as a threat, with the guitar sounds made popular by Mali legends Tinariwen serving as the medium for coded messages to be distributed amongst the Tuareg. So they banned guitars, and started executing musicians. Bombino was forced to flee yet again, this time to Burkina Faso.

The Tuareg are a desert people. For centuries they lived a pastoral lifestyle in the Sahara, in parts of what is now Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso. The culture is traditionally nomadic, subsisting on herding and Trans-Saharan trade, and is made up of a collection of separate matrilineal tribes. They have a long history of resisting rule, whether from European colonial invaders or the independent governments of the postcolonial nations.

But the Tuareg way of life is changing, too; while the dissolution of much of the bondage that supported their cattle herding was positive, rapid desertification limited grazing for their herds, and the uranium mining operations that represent such a large part of countries like Niger’s economy rapidly consume the land and water on which the Tuareg live. As a minority group in all the countries in which they live, the Tuareg are often marginalized by the government, their plight ignored, left to suffer famine and drought. These are the conditions under which they rebel.

Like almost all refugees, the Tuareg who fled the fighting were subject to forces beyond their control; one day they woke up, and their homes were no longer safe. It’s the innocents, the people who want no part of violence but are caught up in it anyway, who Bombino identifies most with. It’s what makes those fleeing Crimea or Syria or any other war-torn region of the globe part of the same struggle.

“All of a sudden, there’s a war in your country, [and] you have absolutely nothing to do with the circumstances that conspired to have a war,” Bombino explains, through his translator. “You’re labeled a refugee, and that comes with all of this baggage. So who is a refugee? It’s really just somebody who found themselves in a bad situation through no fault of their own.”

During Bombino’s time in exile in Burkina Faso, an American filmmaker named Ron Wyman heard his music in Agadez, Niger, and tracked him down in Ouagadougou. He helped Bombino record his LP Agadez, which helped launch his Western music career (he had previously released an album with Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies as Group Bombino). When he returned to Agadez in 2010 with the blessing of the Sultan, he played a concert at the foot of the Grande Mosque, finally able to celebrate his music with the people and place that birthed it.

Bombino’s music is the manifestation of the postcolonial struggle; a proud heritage married to Western culture, using the sounds of pop to spread awareness and messages of hope. The positivity found on Azel is a testament to his spirit, and its reception by Western audiences is evidence of the universal appeal of Tuareg music. When he performed in the parking lot of Austin’s Waterloo Records during SXSW, the almost entirely white crowd that stuck around after Soul Asylum’s set was converted by the third or fourth song; confusion turned to happiness, as the sounds of the desert fell on suburban ears and open minds.

“That was the best show of all South By,” one woman declared, sure to bring Bombino’s songs of peace and respect for humanity back to whichever hamlet she came from. And his work continues.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Agadez was Bombino’s first LP.