At a time when controversy is still raging about our Conservative Government's cynical ploy to send a billboard around London urging immigrants to go home, a reminder of how cultural diversity enriches society feels timely. It's impossible to ignore politics when discussing 33 year old Omara Moctar, aka Bombino, He's a Tuareg, from a nomadic culture spread across the Sahara which tragically fell victim to the fall out from French colonisation. After African countries achieved independence in the 1960's, the traditional Tuareg territory was carved up into modern nation states, leaving them dispersed. Bombino was forced to flea Niger to neighbouring Algeria for safety when he was just 10, later moving to Libya where he worked as a desert herder and musician. He has lived with conflict and instability for most of his life, only returning to his home in Algedez in 2010, when he played a celebratory concert and released an album of that name.
These tumultuous events have deeply influenced Bombino's music, and were explained during a pre-recorded spoken introduction to the performance. He's a virtuoso electric guitar player, learning the instrument as a young man with the aid of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler videos. This instrument is favoured by the Tuareg for its rebellious nature, and indeed it was banned by the government in Niger for its association with insurgence. In the 1980's, rebel fighters founded the seminal band Tinariwen, which fuses indigenous musical styles. Bombino's music owes much to them, yet with the key difference that he is a leader, not simply part of a collective. The first half hour of the set saw an exploration of the Ishumar style, with Bombino on acoustic guitar and an African drummer joining the bass and drum kit player on stage in traditional robes and turbans. The eastern rhythms were utterly hypnotic, and almost immediately an audience member who must have been 25 years older than me was inspired to dance energetically around the front of the stage.
Yet, with the recent album Nomad, he takes this cultural cross fertilisation further with involvement of the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach as producer. Bomino's intention in broadening his appeal is to bring wider attention to issues of the Sahel region of Africa and so help to fight the injustice there. Any lingering suspicion that he had compromised his musical values was dispelled immediately: this was a experience closer in spirit to jazz than rock. Tuareg music has similarities in sound to the blues with its use of pentatonic modes, but above all it was infused with the spirit of the dance. There were no showy antics from the stage, but the audience moved their bodies throughout, and the spirit was one of overwhelming joy. The music was hypnotic, with long instrumental sections and gentle vocals; it felt as if time had stood still, and that the ensemble was improvising spontaneously. A highlight was Amindinine, but each song deepened the intensity of the atmosphere; the experience felt far freer and and more inventive than the album.
Bombino's guitar playing is incredible for its fast rhythmic hammering and virtuosity, but the instrument was not employed for aggression, despite its association with conflict. The message is one of peace and reconciliation, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone would have emerged from this remarkable 90 minutes feeling anything but love towards all their fellow human beings. He sung with a nasal voice in his native tongue; I'm told the lyrics are reflective, about love, the desert, and the Tuareg heritage. Bombino didn't speak between songs, perhaps due to a language barrier, but the music told all. It was a story of selfless co-operation within the band and a spiritual connection with the audience. I found the atmosphere akin to a religious gathering, such was the feeling of joy and the incredibly energising musicianship. I'd strongly advise you to broaden your musical horizons beyond western music, opening your ears and spirit to the life enhancing power of African culture.