Bombino performs at the Hollywood Bowl. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
When the Tuareg people of northern Niger once again decided to take up arms in the face of government neglect and repression in 2007, Omara "Bombino" Moctar joined the fight with his guitar. Like the sinewy desert blues of Mali's Tinariwen, a band launched by an earlier generation of Tuareg rebels seeking self-determination, Bombino's reedy voice and lithe, incantatory guitar riffs added fuel to the Tuareg struggle.
Guitars, alas, aren't much of a match for machine guns, and Bombino ended up fleeing for his life.
"The music was motivating young people to go to the fight," said Bombino, 31, speaking in French and the Tuareg language Tamasheq, through an interpreter. "The government knows the guitar is an instrument to mobilize people. They targeted musicians and we lost two band members. I left the country, rather than get arrested and maybe killed."
In escaping from the war zone, Bombino sought refuge in Burkina Faso, the country due south of Mali. The story of how he went from exile and obscurity to appearing last Sunday as a special guest at the Hollywood Bowl's "Global Soul" showcase is a tale of serendipity and dogged musical sleuthing. Bombino performs with his four-piece band Thursday at Levitt Pavilion Pasadena and Friday at Levitt Pavilion MacArthur Park.
Boston-based filmmaker Ron Wyman was traveling by truck through the Sahara working on a documentary about Tuareg cultural identity when he first listened to Bombino's music on a homemade cassette tape. As the only music in the vehicle during a two-week trek, the songs fused with the desert expanse.
"Bombino's music became the soundtrack for this magnificent region," recalls Wyman. "I had a feeling he would really speak to the question I was exploring, about how Tuareg traditional life is adapting to the modern world."
By the time Wyman made it to Bombino's hometown, Agadez in northern Niger, the guitarist had already fled to Burkina Faso. The filmmaker tracked him down and helped organize a concert of Tuareg exiles, a musical experience so moving that Wyman decided to help Bombino's career get back on track. He ended up producing his critically hailed album "Agadez," which was released in April on the world music label Cumbancha Discovery.
It's difficult to overstate the importance of music in Tuareg culture. Part of its allure is the visceral way the songs evoke the Sahara, with all its mystery and forbidding grandeur. But for the Tuareg, music doesn't just describe their beloved desert. It mediates gender relations, community contentions, and the tricky process of adapting from traditional nomadic culture to settled life bounded by national borders.
"Our music is directly linked with our moral code and tradition," says Bombino's percussionist Mohamed Serge, who like his bandmates grew up around Agadez. "It tells you about the Tuareg personality, preserving the beauty of life in the desert. The music instructs and is related directly to our lives."
Bombino's life has been shaped by the Tuareg struggle. An earlier rebellion sparked by a prolonged drought in the 1980s forced his family to flee to Algeria, which is where he first heard the electric guitar. By the time his family returned to Agadez Bombino was determined to become a musician. Soaking up the music of Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits, he developed his own version of ishoumar, a style forged in refugee camps blending lean, stinging blues and rock-inflected guitar lines with traditional Tuareg themes and forms.
Recruited by Niger's pioneering bandleader Hasso Akotey, he gained widespread attention for his guitar prowess. Bombino made his first trip to North America in 2006 when he performed with Akotey's band Tidawt in conjunction with "The Art of Being Tuareg," a dazzling exhibition organized by UCLA's Fowler Museum and Stanford University displaying jewelry and textiles made by Agadez artisans.
Related to North Africa's indigenous Amazigh (or Berber) peoples, the Tuareg earned a reputation as fierce and wily desert warriors while resisting the French into the late 19th century. With the end of colonial rule in the 1960s, Tuareg society found itself divided by the borders of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
"What's interesting to me is the Tuareg are liminal people who exist in transition between people typed as Berber, Mediterranean and African," says Thomas K. Seligman, curator of the "The Art of Being Tuareg" and director of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. "They are part of both, or neither, or all of the above."
Bombino's 2006 tour opened up numerous doors, most importantly offering Bombino the opportunity to collaborate with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts on a Tuaregized version of the Rolling Stones' "Hey Negrita." Later in 2006, Bombino had an even more unlikely brush with celebrity when he served as a desert guide for Angelina Jolie.
Any hope of parlaying those encounters into an international career was dashed by the outbreak of rebellion in Niger and Mali. Since an uneasy peace settled on the region in 2009, Bombino has sought to sow unity in a culture still reeling from decolonization.
"My dream is that Tuareg areas must get peace," Bombino says. "That will allow us to work and develop our countries and keep our own culture. If we preserve our nomadic culture and moral code, we won't need to run away from our homeland."