Bombino proves even in West Africa, rock rings true

West African band Bombino
West African band Bombino
Photo by Tom Leentjes
| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 6:17 p.m.

There's no law that says the best guitarists in the world have to be born in the United States or Britain. In our connected, globalized, ever-shrinking world, they can come from anywhere.

There is a rule (sort of) that requires aspiring electric guitarists to put in some time listening to Jimi Hendrix, though.

Omara “Bombino” Moctar, leader of the West African “desert blues” band Bombino, grew up in a nomadic Tuareg encampment in Niger. That's about as off-the-grid as one can realistically get. Despite that, he still ended up where most American teenage guitarists do — Hendrix.

“When I was a child, I would hear traditional Tuareg music, traditional Hausa music, a lot of traditional African music,” Bombino says in an email interview, with the help of an interpreter. “When my family went to Algeria during the first rebellion, that is when I began listening to rock music. It was listening to the big rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Santana and Dire Straits that I fell in love with rock music, and, more particularly, the guitar, and from that time I knew I wanted to be a musician.

“My music is a mix of traditional Tuareg music and rock music. To me, it is about 50 percent traditional, 50 percent rock. Many people call it ‘desert blues,' too.”

Bombino is part of a growing diaspora of musicians from the harsh, war-torn deserts of western Africa that have begun to get recognition from music fans worldwide. Since September, some of the region's top acts — including Mamadou Kelly, Leila Gobi, Sidi Toure and Terakaft — have performed in Pittsburgh as part of “The Sahara Series.” The last of the concerts, featuring Bombino, will be Nov. 27 at the Thunderbird Cafe, Lawrenceville.

Although constant travel might be in their blood, these musicians aren't always leaving their homelands by choice. In recent years, the nation of Mali has seen persistent drought, a Tuareg rebellion, an Islamist insurgency and an intervention by the French military.

“All of the problems of the Sahel (the semi-arid region from the Sahara Desert to the tropical Sudanian Savanna) are affecting everyone, musicians included,” Bombino says. “We are seeing violent episodes now in Niger that are the result of this violence in Mali. The Niger government did the right thing to support the French and the Malian governments, but now we are seeing the Islamists' anger directed at us as well.

“It is a terrible situation for everyone, and I pray every day that it gets better and we can return to peace and stability,” he says. “We need these things if we wish to address our issues of development. ... We need schools and hospitals and employment, but none of this can happen if there is not first peace and security.”

Now, many of the region's musicians live semi-nomadic existence on the road between the concert halls and rock clubs of the West.

Bombino's recent album “Nomad,” was produced by Grammy-winner Dan Auerbach, of Akron, Ohio's blues-rock giants The Black Keys. Auerbach wisely chose to mostly just let Bombino's sinuous, psychedelic guitar lines and timeless, hypnotic desert rhythms speak for themselves.

“He is a real genius and a great producer,” Bombino says. “He is equally a great guy. He was able to create a very relaxed environment, even though for us it was our first time in a real, professional recording studio, and we could not speak the same language as him, as well as other challenges. But Dan was very cool and knew how to create the right energy in the studio for the best music to come out.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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