Interview with Tuareg Guitar Phenom Bombino

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It wasn’t until this Spring that I first heard the name Omara “Bombino” Moctar, a young and mesmerizing Tuareg guitar talent and songwriter. Moctar was raised in Tidene, Niger, an encampment of nomadic Tuaregs located about 80 kilometers to the northeast of Agadez embroiled in armed struggles for independence and violent suppression by government forces. Moctar’s upbringing, positivist outlook and focus on promoting his heritage inform and inspire his music and worldview as the 32-year old guitarist continually impresses audiences all over the globe.

Amongst the onslaught of come-see-my-client PR e-mails I received in the weeks leading up to this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, there was one that really happened to catch my attention, make me dig deeper and circle Bombino’s name on the Fest grid to ensure that I didn’t miss his mid-afternoon Saturday set in the Blues Tent. This decision turned out to be one of the more musically-rewarding ones I would make this entire festival season. After sitting totally entranced for nearly an hour by the otherworldly sounds coming from the stage, my Fest companions and I were all in agreement that we’d seen something truly unique and special, something all in the Tent will surely remember and look back fondly on years from now. At a Fest that prides itself on staging roots music coming from all-corners-of-the-globe, Bombino fit right in while standing out, taking the crowd on a veritable trip where a pristine surf guitar run, spine-tingling kora, and ritualistic Tuareg drumming were all part of the ride and welcomed with open arms and ears.

Fans of fellow African artists Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré, along with blues icons like Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker (or even some of the more bluesy Grateful Dead fare) will undoubtedly find familiar ground with Bombino’s music, while being completely blown away by a sound that is utterly matchless.

INTERVIEW WITH BOMBINO by Jim Brock and Wesley Hodges

LMB: The reception by US audiences must be gratifying, especially playing to larger festival crowds. You sing in your native tongue and many are hearing you for the first time. What do you think resonates most with these audiences? (JB)

It is the energy of the musicians on the stage. People cannot understand what we sing about. Often they cannot even understand what we are trying to say to them from the stage. But everyone all over the world understands the energy and enjoys the music – the rhythm and the melodies are universal. That is all we are using to communicate.

LMB: In light of recent events in North African countries the past few weeks and over the past year, the global reach of your music has even greater immediacy and impact. How has this influenced your performance and writing? (JB)

It has made me feel as though I need to work harder to continue to spread my awareness of my culture and promote peace in the region. That is all I can do. I am not a politician or a general in the army or anything like that. I can use my music to promote peace and help people become interested in what is happening in the Sahara. Maybe you see my show and you are curious about where I am from, so you look on the internet or read the newspaper and learn what is happening. That can help to change the situation in the Sahara. The people in the United States and in Europe need to know what is happening or no one cares and their governments do not react.

You played with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Stones in 2006. That had to be a huge thrill. Did you and Keith swap any guitar tips? (JB)

Haha. No not really. We had a very fun time but I did not know who he was when I was recording with him. It was after that people explained to me that he was one of the biggest rock stars of history. Wow. I’m glad I did not know when we were recording.

Your guitar influences run the gamut of the greats and your bio says that you absorbed licks from watching videos of Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. Who would you most like to play with, if you had the chance? (JB)

I think for me it would be Hendrix or Ali Farka Toure. Those are my two biggest heros.

You are self-taught. How would you best describe your technique and overall approach to the guitar? (JB)

I do not use a pick. I use all my fingers, my wrist, my whole arm, even my whole body. I do not have a technique that I can give a name. But I try to approach the guitar like it is a part of my body – like it is an extension of my arms, alive, and to treat it like a limb.

After getting to play a number of international music festivals in 2012, which one of those gigs stands out above the rest? As a bonus question, what has been your favorite U.S. city to visit and play? (WH)

Hmmm… that is very tough. I love being in Boston, and I also love being in Portland and Seattle. I think those are my favorite places in the US so far. But it is because I have good friends there. That is what matters. I love California as well. I think my favorite festival so far was Salmon Arm in British Columbia. So beautiful there. Also Austin Psych Fest had the craziest crowd we have seen so far. That one was special.

With the recent success of Tinariwen and now your rise to notoriety over the past few years, what do you attest to the international music scene’s acceptance of Tuareg music? (WH)

Tuareg music is great music that everyone can enjoy. I think it’s that simple. It is just really good music.

Finally, what’s in store for you for the rest of 2012 and going forward in 2013? (WH)

After this US tour we do one more tour in Europe in October and November and then we go to India for a week to play a festival in New Delhi and some other concerts. Then it is a long rest for the band back home in Niger! I have a new album coming out early next year. I am not supposed to say too much about it yet but I can tell you it will be very special. We will be touring a lot of 2013 with this new record.

Thank you very much. A bientot!

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Editor, Live Music Blog http://www.livemusicblog.com