Floods are rare in the Sahara but when they do strike they can be devastating, flushing away animals, houses, cars and people. There’s one desert flood, however, that has been rampaging benignly for months, even far beyond the confines of the Sahara itself. I’m referring to modern Touareg guitar music, a Saharan phenomenon that has mutated from a trickle into a roaring torrent, on stage, on record, on the internet, everywhere.
Global awareness of assouf, al guitara, ishumar or desert blues – the names of the Touareg guitar style are legion – dawned almost exactly a decade ago when the originators of the genre, Tinariwen, released their first CD in Europe and the United States. But now, Sahara desert rock is entering its second or even third age and it’s the “children” of Tinariwen who are taking centre stage. They’re hungry, talented singers and guitarists like Ousmane Ag Mossa, the lead singer of Tamikrest, or Moussa Ag Keyna, the frontman of Toumast, who were infants when Touareg guitar music was born in the early 1980s in Algeria and Libya. Following the release of his acclaimed album Agadez, a 30-year-old guitarist from the historic town of Agadez in northern Niger is swiftly moving to the forefront of this new Saharan generation. His name is Goumar Almoctar, aka Bombino.
Unlike their elders in Tinariwen or Takrist Nakal, Bombino’s generation has never known a Sahara without the bewitching sounds of Touareg guitar music. “The moment they opened their eyes, there was the guitar,” explains Mohammed Serge, Bombino’s articulate and uncharacteristically talkative percussion player. “They were born into the guitar music and grew up listening to the messages.”
Those messages haven’t changed a great deal in the past 30 years: peace in the desert, unity for the widely dispersed nomadic Touareg, respect and recognition for their unique Berber culture, political and social emancipation, freedom from oppression and corruption, nostalgia for family, friends and the sandy steppes of home.
Onstage during his European debut concert at the Banlieue Blues Festival in Le Blanc Mesnil, a grit and concrete northern suburb of Paris, Bombino moves unlike any Touareg guitarist I’ve ever seen. He jives, cavorts and flings riffs to the four winds, piling on the rock’n’roll, whipping and snapping out his licks like a wild thing who doesn’t feel the burdens of time, history or tradition. The contrast with the stillness or the sedate swaying of the older Touareg rockers is immediate. Behind Bombino, the drummer Ibrahim wallops out those typically loping Touareg rhythms with a clumsy joyous zest. A full drum kit in a Touareg guitar band? That’s a revolution in itself.
Earlier in the day I met Bombino and crew at their hotel just next to Paris’s roaring Périphérique ring road. Bombino has something sprightly and elfin about him. His answers to my questions are soft and temperate, with no attempt to tangle with complex issues. That’s Serge’s job.
I ask about the nomadic life. Are we in danger of romanticising it? “Well, in truth, you have to say that it’s a hard life,” answers Serge. “Especially now, with all the climatic changes and the droughts. It has to change. Not the entire way of life perhaps, but it must be more productive so that the nomad population are less vulnerable. But, you know, the nomad sacrifices himself, just to enjoy the peace, liberty and space of the desert. He can sacrifice everything, just for that.”
Peace, liberty, space: the outside world often scratches its head and tries to figure out why the Touareg have been fighting since the early 1960s to defend a land and a way of life that seem so tough, even downright hostile to human happiness.
“The Touareg dreams of a life with his herd,” Serge explains. “In his camp, by his well, next to his parents and his brothers and sisters, in the midst of all that savannah, that steppe. It’s the endgame of his entire existence.”
Serge’s idyllic evocation is a neat description of Tidene, the village about 80 kilometres to the north-east of Agadez, near which Bombino was born and raised. His own idyll was shattered first by the great drought of 1984-85, which killed off almost 80 per cent of the nomadic herds, and then by the Touareg rebellion of 1990 which forced Bombino and his family north to Tahaggart Choumera, the Touareg ghetto of Tamanrasset in southern Algeria.
“That’s where I had my first contact with the guitar,” Bombino tells me. “My cousins would come to my house and play. When they left the room I would grab the chance to go and have a strum.”
When political tensions eased in 1993, Bombino returned home to Agadez. After peace came in 1996, members of Tinariwen and Takrist Nakal would stay at his family home. “Abdallah ‘Catastrophe’ and Hassan ‘Abin Abin’ from Tinariwen would both show me things on the guitar,” he remembers. “Abdallah had the best guitar in Agadez at the time. All the musicians I knew in town would come round, just to look at it and touch it.”
It was round then that Bombino acquired his nickname, a play on bambino, the Italian word for a small boy. He became the unofficial pupil of a guitarist called Haja Bebe, a Touareg who had studied music for six years in Mali and could teach his young disciple all about chords and scales. Bombino also hung out almost nightly at a club called La Belle Etoile in Agadez, which was run by Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou, the most famous Touareg musician from Niger until now.
Therein lie the roots of the revolution brewing in Bombino’s fingers. Hitherto, most Touareg guitarists have learnt their craft by sitting around the fire with friends, drinking tea and playing endless renditions of Tinariwen or Takrist Nakal songs. Bombino did all that, but he’s also one of the first Touareg musicians to have studied music in a focused, thirsty and obsessive way. You can feel that education in the unlikely chord sequences he uses or in his characteristic mix of virtuoso licks and rhythmic chopping.
After recording his first album Agamgam in 2004, Bombino became a hot ticket on the Agadez and Niamey wedding circuits, and his music burned like a bush fire on bootleg cassettes and via the mobile phones of Niger’s desert youth. With a group called Tidawt, he toured California in 2007, and performed on a desert blues version of Hey Negrita in the company of Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. “Leslie Clark, our friend and minder, was totally bowled over when she heard we were going to play with the Stones,” Bombino remembers. “She kept whooping for joy. But I’d never heard of them so it didn’t mean a thing to me!”
Talking to Bombino about his days growing up in Algeria or Niger, you get the impression that the guitar was his be all and end all, more important than the rebellions and struggles in which his fellow Touareg were engaged all around him. “The guitar was my main concern at that time,” he says, matter-of-factly, “I was so keen to know it, to master it.”
On the surface, this obsession might seem callous and egocentric, given the circumstances. But Bombino is no cop-out. When the Touareg rebellion in northern Niger flared up again in 2007, he and Serge joined the rebels, and spent many months dodging and fighting the Niger army in the deserts around Iferouane. “Every evening, there was guitar playing,” Serge remembers. “Our leader Aghaly Alambo went on a mission to Algeria and came back with a pick-up full of equipment. He knew the importance of the music to the rebels. It galvanises and gives energy.”
For Bombino and his friends, the peace, freedom and tranquillity of the desert are not only worth dying for, they’re also essential to musical inspiration. “The desert is really important,” he says. “I have to return there, to replenish my mind and spirit, to have different ideas. A guitar sounds best when there’s no sound around, when it’s quiet and clear, when everything is calm.”
There is not much hope of finding that calm in the hotels, airports and motorway service stations of Europe and the US, where Bombino is likely to be spending more and more time in the near future. Agadez, produced with bulls-eye intuition by the American filmmaker Ron Wyman, looks set to become one of this year’s top African music platters, and Wyman’s lush and penetrative film about Bombino will no doubt double the impact.
Bombino is no cute child any more. In fact, he became a father just a few weeks before I met him in Paris. It’s the turn of his generation to carry on the fight now, just as the threats faced by the Touareg back in Niger seem more complex and implacable than ever.
Whatever method they choose, the Touareg are going to have to fight tooth and nail to preserve what’s left of their life and culture. “I hope we can take this music and this culture very far,” Bombino asserts in his usual quiet way, “and contribute to the return of peace to the Sahara, and a renewal of hope there.”
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