How Bombino Became the Sultan of Shred

Posted May 18, 2018 12:00 a.m. EDT

On a recent night in New York City, an ecstatic crowd jammed the dance floor of the club Brooklyn Bowl to see one of the world’s greatest living blues guitarists. He doesn’t hail from the Mississippi Delta or Chicago’s South Side, but from the dusty outpost of Agadez, Niger, in the Sahara. Oumara Moctar, better known as Bombino, is already a star among the Tuareg — the nomadic Berbers who traverse the countries along the desert — and as he releases his sixth album, “Deran,” he’s on the verge of becoming one internationally.

North African desert blues (or tichumaren in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language), has become arguably the most successful world music genre to break through since reggae, and few have wielded the guitar with such mastery and majesty as Bombino. His spellbinding virtuosity and urgently dynamic live shows have made fans of fellow musicians from Keith Richards and Robert Plant to Josh Homme and Win Butler, and built him a following that’s crossed over from the world music community to the jam-band circuit.

“My objective is to get people moving,” he said in French through his manager, Eric Herman, who also serves as a translator, a few days before the concert, at his record label’s nearby offices in Brooklyn. “It’s really context dependent, whether I feel the pull to play on the softer romantic side or the high energy side, but I want to make people move.”

After making his previous three albums primarily in Boston, Nashville, Tennessee, and Woodstock, New York, with producers including the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth, Bombino recorded in Africa for the first time in nearly a decade, since the field recordings that introduced him to world music audiences on the 2009 compilation “Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2.”

Recorded in Casablanca at a studio owned by the king of Morocco, “Deran” was produced by Herman, and presents what Bombino considers to be his true voice, without being filtered through the sheen of a famous producer. “Deran” displays the breadth of Bombino’s stylistic approaches: the electrifying “Imajghane” is a rollicking blues-rock anthem, while “Midiwan” sounds like an acoustic desert campfire singalong and “Tehigren” features a lilting bounce that the band has called “Tuareggae.” At the Brooklyn concert in honor of “Deran,” the guitarist was dressed in a plum-colored knee-length waxed-cotton bazin robe and matching pants. Sporting a white tagelmust — the traditional Tuareg head wrap — worn around his neck as a scarf and dangling precariously close to the tops of his leather loafers, he resembled what “Purple Rain"-era Prince might have looked like if Minneapolis were closer to North Africa than North Dakota. His guitar playing was nearly as incendiary as the Purple One, too: When his backing band leavened their hypnotically funky desert blues with an amiable reggae beat, Bombino kicked up his knees in a high-stepping skank, his spindly fingers a dizzying blur on the strings.

Bombino’s age is around 38 (“Maybe more, maybe less,” he said, “in any case, that’s what’s written on my papers”), but his music has a timeless quality, borrowing from Tuareg traditionals and infusing them with an infectious exuberance and considerable improvisation. The nickname Bombino derives from his teens, when he was the youngest kid hanging out with older musicians. Bombino first cradled a guitar at 11 or 12 while a refugee in Algeria, where his family fled to during the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s. “There were older cousins around that had one,” he said, “so I would pretend to go to school and then hide, wait for everybody to be gone, and then go and take the guitar and play.” Upon his return to Niger, Bombino visited an uncle with a home full of musical instruments, who offered him an accordion. Bombino accepted it, not wanting to be rude, but after two days he mustered the courage to trade it in for a guitar. He taught himself how to play by listening to pirated cassettes of Ali Farka Touré, Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix, although he often didn’t know what he was hearing. “By the time a cassette makes it to the desert of Agadez,” Bombino said, “the writing is all rubbed off and we would just get a tape and have no idea what it is.”

Bombino sings in Tamasheq, and many of his lyrics highlight the Tuaregs’ profound connection with the desert, their ancestral home. The music itself mirrors the desert: The guitar pyrotechnics of his live show pay tribute to the Sahara’s powerful storms, and the loping rhythm of many of his songs echoes the odd meter of a camel’s gait. “An important thing to know is the desert is a very vast open space,” Bombino said. “Sound and music there carries a power with it, so you get the feeling when you’re holding an instrument in your hand and playing it, you’re completing a picture that was otherwise incomplete.”

In the mid-1990s Bombino found work in Libya as a shepherd, spending long periods of solitude with just the sheep and his guitar. Hanging out with friends, he honed his technique by watching DVDs of two of his most fervent inspirations. He was mesmerized by the interplay of Dire Straits: “The kind of familial sort of exchanges they would have musically, it touched me in a profound way,” he said. And he was moved by the emotional playing of Hendrix. “Watching Jimi with his guitar is like watching a mother with her baby,” he said. “When the guitar is crying, he’ll calm it down. The sentimentality between him and his guitar is very powerful for me.”

Back in Agadez in his later teenage years, he began building a reputation as “the Hendrix of the Sahel” while working as a tour guide. In 2006, he chaperoned Angelina Jolie on a six-day journey through northern Niger, accompanied by her camera crew. “We went out to the desert,” Bombino said, “I would play, and she would dance.”

Niger’s tourism industry is long gone now, a casualty of the second Tuareg rebellion in 2007. During the first Tuareg uprising, rebels had used concerts for recruitment, gathering people and inciting dissent; when the second revolt started, Tuareg music was considered rebel propaganda. To be labeled one of “les guitaristes” was dangerous; two of Bombino’s bandmates disappeared and are assumed to have been executed by the Nigerien army.

Many of Bombino’s friends and colleagues were joining the rebellion, but he made the difficult decision to flee Niger again, this time for Burkina Faso. “I never saw the need to take up arms for the rebel cause, I always believed that there was a path out through music, so that’s why I decided to take my guitar and go,” Bombino explained.

“Music is part of politics for the Tuareg historically, and even Bombino’s whole idea of putting down your AK for a guitar is a political statement,” said Thomas K. Seligman, the co-author of “Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World.” “In Niger they’ve been economically unsupported, and they feel marginalized. They’ve struggled in a whole variety of ways over history to stay Tuareg, to stay proud and pass that on to their children and keep their land.”

Bombino returned to Niger in 2010 after the conflict ended, playing a triumphant concert in front of the Great Mosque in Agadez. Footage of that event was featured in Ron Wyman’s 2013 documentary “Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion,” and clips of Bombino’s performance posted online caught the attention of Auerbach, who produced Bombino’s 2013 album, “Nomad.” “He was jumping out of the screen when I first saw him on my computer,” Auerbach said. “He didn’t feel like an antiquity, he was just going for it. Where Ali Farka Touré was behind the beat, Bombino was on it, pushing it forward. It’s almost like a punk rock energy. It took me by surprise.” Bombino’s former status as a refugee has renewed significance in light of recent world events. For Africans hoping to make it to Europe, Agadez marks the northernmost outpost before crossing the expanse of the Sahara. The population of Agadez has swelled to over 118,000 (from about 35,000 in the early 2000s), because of the many refugees from Libya’s civil war, as well as stranded Europe-bound migrants.

“Having experienced the pain of being a refugee myself twice in my life, this issue is of great concern to me,” Bombino said. “My heart bleeds for the people I see on this ‘migrant route.’ I was extremely lucky to survive my experiences with displacement. When I see people in this situation coming through Agadez, I feel a shudder in my bones knowing this person will probably not be so lucky.”

The status of Niger’s Tuaregs has improved somewhat since the end of the second rebellion, at least in terms of social mobility. Yet many of the grievances that led to the insurgency remain unresolved. Resolutely focused on his people, Bombino dreams of launching a musical community center that would provide access to instruments and recording equipment for Tuareg youth. “In the areas where there are Tuareg people, there’s been quite a lot of conflict, especially in the last 10 years or so,” Bombino said, “so my main wish would be for an enduring peace.”

That feeling was shared by the audience at Brooklyn Bowl. Amid the crowd, a group of friends all originally from southeastern Morocco unfurled a flag that represents the Berber-speaking peoples of North Africa, also known as Amazigh or “free people.” After dancing with it held over their heads, they threw it onto the stage as a gift for Bombino, who smiled and nodded his thanks. After the show, Aziz Eikadi, 24, listed the reasons he liked the guitarist, including “the way he expresses our culture to the world, our history, our bravery, our pride.”

While Berber-speaking members of the audience may be a smaller demographic in the U.S., it hasn’t seemed to limit Bombino’s appeal; his three most recent albums have all topped the iTunes World Music Chart. “For us, he transcends language,” Seligman said. “The singing somehow works in the West, where nobody understands the meaning of what he’s saying, but it works with the music so well. That to me is part of the magic.”

Bombino himself senses this rousing reception from audience. “What makes an impression on me while I’m out touring is just how people are so open to my music,” he said, “how they come out and obviously don’t understand a word of what I’m saying.”

“You can just feel that they’re really enjoying the music and opening their minds and their eyes to it,” he added. “That’s the best feeling.”