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Bombino: Unfamiliar Suffering Gets A Universal Treatment

Bombino (right, with guitar) is a rising star in a generation of rebellious Tuareg rockers.
Ron Wyman
Courtesy of the artist
Bombino (right, with guitar) is a rising star in a generation of rebellious Tuareg rockers.

In the early '90s, the nomadic Tuareg people of Niger and Mali rebelled. Laid low by drought and abandoned by governments, they fought to establish a Tuareg nation. That dream was never realized, but the rebellion did inspire a tradition of guitar-wielding rebel rockers with songs of suffering and nostalgia. Bombino is one of these — a young guitarist and singer from Niger, as well as a rising star in Tuareg folk-rock. His newest album is Agadez.

The guitar playing on this album is clean and tuneful, sunnier than the raw trance grooves of other Tuareg rock bands. Bombino's songs also evoke the hardship of separation and loss, but his pain comes filtered through the shimmering veneer of a young man's all-consuming love of nature.

Omara Moctar was a talented guitarist from a young age — hence the nickname Bombino, adapted from the Italian bambino ("baby"). He was leading a band in Niger in 2007 when rebellion once again plunged the Tuareg into turmoil. By that time, a Tuareg with a guitar was considered about as dangerous as one with an AK-47. When two members of Bombino's group were killed, he fled to Burkina Faso and composed songs of nostalgia for his desert home.

Jamming guitars, bluesy pentatonic scales, songs of moral indignation: This can all seem like some surreal fun-house reflection of the American rock 'n' roll saga, only set among nomadic Muslims in the Sahara desert. The stark beauty of the desert is key here; it explains the paradoxical serenity in this music of revolutionaries.

Last year, with the rebellion quieted, Bombino returned to Niger and participated in the rehabilitation of the northern city of Agadez. It was a profoundly moving experience for him, and it gives this mesmerizing album its name. Bombino makes the suffering of an ancient people in a harsh and distant land sound both strangely contemporary and universally appealing.

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