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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bombino: Journeys of a Global Nomad

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Growing up as a member of the Tuareg people in western Africa, Omara “Bombino” Moctar realized that his home was often not a permanent one. Instead, he found a sense of home in being on the move, traversing the seemingly endless and unpredictable western expanses of the Saharan desert. Rebellions and harsh government policies several times forced him and his family to flee from his birthplace Agadez, Niger, to countries like Libya.

Bombino spent many of his teenage days helping his family watch over cattle, oftentimes by himself. One day he found a guitar and immediately latched onto its potential. It was a way to express his joys and frustrations, and made the rough lifestyle more bearable.

“When I was in Libya looking after animals, my guitar was my biggest companion,” says Bombino. “This lifestyle can be very lonely. You can be without any human contact for weeks at a time. So there is just you and your thoughts and for me there was also the guitar. So you can imagine how important the guitar became to me in these years.”

As he got better at guitar, people started taking notice, including Niger musician and activist Haja Bebe. Bebe asked the teenaged Bombino if he would join the band. Since he was half the age of all the other members, Bebe nicknamed him Bombino, Italian for “little child.” The two became close friends and Bombino grew fond of his mentor’s heartfelt teaching methods.

“When I first joined his band, Haja would always make me carry his guitar for him,” says Bombino. “Even if we were just going one meter away and he was right next to his guitar, he would look at me as if he was helpless and say, ‘Bombino, this guitar does not have legs, you know.’ It was not anything mean, just funny and to show me that I needed to work hard and respect my elders.”

In addition to playing with others in his home country, he would also listen to British and American classic blues and rock. As he continued to play, these styles started blending naturally with his home country’s music.

“I just tried to play the best I could and the result is naturally a mix of everything that I had absorbed,” says Bombino. “With music, like with any art I think, you cannot think about what you are about to do or then it is not the real you as an artist anymore, it has been compromised by thinking about it.”

The lessons and experiences of playing to more and more people gave him confidence that he could make a global impact with his music. “For me, I feel very blessed to have this role in life,” he says. “I am a global nomad and my job is to spread joy, music and my culture around the world to as many people as I can. It is better than any other job I could have. I think I would be a cook or driving a truck otherwise. So for me to be earning my living with my guitar, and to provide for my family like this, it is really a dream.”

Like his previous album, which was recorded by American documentary filmmaker Ron Wyman, he was supported by an American collaborator: Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach. Auerbach had been awed by Wyman’s video of Bombino live, and quickly reached out to Bombino to come work on the new album, eventually titled Nomad, at his Easy Eye Sound in Nashville, Tennessee for ten days.

With Auerbach’s help, Bombino says they made an album that kept “the identity of my music very pure but also make it sound big and interesting.”

“He told us at the beginning that he wanted to take the energy of the live show and capture it on the album,” says Bombino. “I think that is exactly what he did, and then on top of that he added some great musicians to give their contributions and add some nice colors.”

While his lyrics are in the Tamasheck language, he hopes that people take time to seek out translated lyrics as the topics are universal.

“I am directing many of the lyrics to the Tuareg people and the people of Niger, but everyone who listens should be able to find the words relevant to their own life,” Bombino says. “I am singing about the importance of peace, of brotherhood, of development and of tradition. These are not easy things to achieve but they are all critical to our survival first as Tuaregs, but also as humans.”

Bombino opens for Gogol Bordello at the Pabst Theater on Saturday, June 8. Doors open at 7 p.m.