In the labyrinthine bowels of the BBC’s Wood Lane studios a sublime audioscape is being practiced for the U.K.’s most acclaimed live music show, Later With Jools Holland. The looped instrumentation and Saharan melodies recall Tinariwen, Abreyboun, Keddo and, further back, Ali Farka Touré’s psychedelic blues.
Omara Moctar (a.k.a. Bombino), though, has a distinctly modern sound, which he’s about to unleash for the first time on British television. Relying less on the call/response chants of Tuareg tradition, he places his own youthful voice center stage. This, combined with a riff-happy guitar style that’s more Woodstock than Womad, has seen Moctar dubbed ‘the Tuareg Jimi Hendrix.’
2011 has been a stellar year for Bombino. Debut album Agadez (named for the desert city in Niger in which he lives) has been riding high in the world-music charts since its release. There have also been U.S. and European tours, while a film about his life and music has become an indie hit, winning a spate of awards. For an unfazed Moctar, though, more important than fame is the transition from war to peace, both personal and political.
“This is not just for me, it is for the whole band and Agadez in its entirety,” he says. “It is important that the name of Agadez rings out and that people better understand the Tuareg.”
Conflict has rocked the desert city over recent decades. Clashes between Nigerien government forces and the nomadic, fiercely independent, Tuareg people became commonplace in the Nineties, leaving a once thriving city empty.
“We used to have a kind of Grand Prix there” Moctar says. “When I was growing up, people would come from all over the world to visit. It was a great source of pride, and income, for the Tuareg. Since the wars all that has gone. I want my music to tweak people’s interest again – to make them feel inspired to visit. We have peace in Agadez and it must be preserved.”
The Tuareg sound has found a global audience over recent years. Could Agadez one day become the center of a Tuareg renaissance, just as Addis Ababa was for Ethiojazz back in the Sixties?
“The music scene is gradually, slowly, evolving. A couple of venues have opened recently which have excellent sound systems but the scene remains small. For most people music is still an informal thing, something you do privately with your friends. But I would love to see a music boom and a cultural renaissance in Agadez, I want my music to speak for the city and help that happen.”
Bombino is already a veteran of the Tuareg music scene and a hero in his hometown. Upon his return to Niger from exile last year the Grand Mosque in Agadez allowed him to play to well over 1,000 people in the shadow of its minarets. The moment was a celebration not just of Tuareg identity, but also of peace in the city. For Moctar, it was highly symbolic.
Forced into exile when the governments of Niger and Mali cracked down on Tuareg rebels, Bombino spent much of his youth in Algeria. It was here he began playing guitar and was exposed to influences from beyond the desert. “My uncle Rissa Ixa, a painter, gave me a guitar and I started mimicking the songs and sounds I enjoyed,” he says. “In Algeria I could watch music clips on the TV and I first saw Western guitarists. I had many African influences such as Ali Farka Touré and the Ishoumar musicians, but I also started listening to Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix – I think this is why people hear this blend of the African and the Western in my guitar style.”
Despite the variety of influences there is no mistaking the Tuareg rhythm that rings out through his music. “It is hard to say where the Tuareg sound comes from,” Moctar says. “I suppose it is the sound of the desert. Life in the desert is very different – kind of detached from the rest of the world – so maybe that’s why the desert sound is so unique. Also, Tuareg guitar music is still so young. It wasn’t until Intayaden (a formative Tuareg musician) transcribed traditional Tuareg music for the guitar that we started playing. Before this we played our traditional instrument, the Tacamba. It’s a very rhythmic instrument. I think this is where the hypnotic guitar style comes from.”
From precocious beginnings copying his favourite Hendrix clips, Moctar was given a shot in Bebe Aja’s legendary band Tartit (it was his experience of being a boy in a band full of men that saw him dubbed Bombino). Here, he honed his craft and developed a sound that has now landed him in a BBC studio, alongside industry giants like Florence + The Machine and Pete Townshend. But he shows no sign of being anything other than perfectly composed.
“I am more curious than nervous,” he says. “After all, what is there to be nervous about? I want to see where all the hype leads.”