Niger-born musician Omar Moctar — better known as Bombino — is sympathetic to those trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at all costs. He’s faced similar hardships and challenges in his own life.
When Bombino was 9, a rebellion in Niger forced his family to seek refuge in Algeria. He returned to Niger in his late teens. Having learned to play guitar in exile, he started performing music wherever he could. Niger musician and activist Haja Bebe took notice of his increasing popularity and asked him to join his band. Bebe gave him the nickname of “Bombino,” “little child,” since he was half the age of the other musicians.
A second rebellion in Niger in 2007 prompted government to ban guitars, which they viewed as a symbol of dissent. Two of Bombino’s fellow band members were executed; Bombino fled into exile again.
During Bombino’s exile, his music was discovered by American filmmaker Ron Wyman, who was filming a documentary about Niger’s Tuareg people. Bombino’s demo tape was re-released as his debut album “Agadez.” He began gaining new fans well beyond Africa’s borders with each following album.
Bombino When: 8:15 pm July 14 Where: Square Roots Music Festival, Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Wilson. Price: Suggested donation of $10 for adults, $5 seniors/kids, and $20 for families Info: squareroots.org
In May he released his latest album “Deran.” On album track “Tehigren,” he sings about leaving Africa to pursue a career in music.
“On the song, I sing about my struggle to leave my home to seek my living, and how this is the case for so many Tuareg who have left Africa,” Bombino says. “In the U.S., you hear all the time about immigration and the struggles around people leaving their home to find a better life. We struggle with very similar things on the other side of the world.”
“Deran” loosely translates to “best wishes,” which is something he offers in song to a world he sees facing tumultuous times.
“We were working on the song ‘Deran Deran Alkheir’ and the meaning of it, and it occurred to us that this could be a great album title,” he says. “It is a nice sentiment to take from a traditional song and use as a message for the world.”
Despite his successes, he hasn’t forgotten his home country. In fact, “Deran” is his first album recorded in Africa in nearly a decade. It’s something he’s long wanted to do. He tried to do it for previous album, “Azel,” but the logistics didn’t work out. So, he was ecstatic when things finally lined up. He and his bandmates recorded the album at Moroccan king Mohammed VI’s studio in Casablanca.
“It was actually the easiest meeting place for us since we had two in the band starting in Niger, one in Brussels and two coming from the U.S.,” he says. “It was really wonderful for me as the culture there has a lot of close connections to Tuareg culture. The Berber are relatives of the Tuaregs. We share an alphabet, Tifinag. In all ways it was a very comfortable and satisfying experience.”
Bombino wrote and sang the album’s lyrics entirely in his native language of Tamasheq, which he described as a “beautiful language” that “sounds very good and natural when it is put to music.”
“Our language is a very poetic one, so for us it goes very well with music,” he says.
Even if you don’t speak the language, his passion and talent shines through. It’s a reason he’s highly thought of by musicians such as Keith Richards, Stevie Wonder, Robert Plant and Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach.
“It is a fantastic feeling to connect with another person through music, even when you cannot understand each other when you speak,” Bombino says. “Music is even more profound a language than the languages that we speak.”
The eclectic mix of folk, rock, blues, funk and Tuareggae is clear evidence of this. Music is about freedom, Bombino says. “I think all of these styles are represented because we wish to be free to roam from one musical place to another without encountering a border,” he says.
“We were not concerned about making this album sound different from previous albums,” he continues. “I just wanted to give as pure a performance as we could of the new songs. In the end I think this album is very much the child of all the albums that came before; there is some heavy rock like on ‘Nomad,’ there is some softer, sweeter songs like on ‘Agadez,’ there is Tuareggae like on ‘Azel.’ For me it is the most complete album of all of them.”
Bombino’s hardships and successes have shaped who he is today.
“I think it has given me a great deal of patience which has been very useful as a touring musician,” he says. “It has also taught me to enjoy every moment of good fortune that I have, because life can change very quickly.”
The album features a couple firsts for a Bombino album. Illias Mohammed, the band’s rhythm guitarist, took over lead vocals on a couple of the songs. Also, “Deran Deran Alkheir” finds Bombino blending acoustic with electric for the first time.
“It is normally a rocking electric song. In this case we played with acoustic guitars, we brought in Mohamed Araki to play different synths on it, we added a Moroccan percussionist, and so forth,” says Bombino. “It is the kind of recording that cannot be reproduced live, while the rest of the album is very loyal to how we play the songs live.”
It also showcases more of his versatility on guitar.
“I spent a lot of time alone with my guitar in my youth and this allowed me to get very comfortable with the instrument, almost like a part of my body,” he says.
Jimi Hendrix is one of his biggest influences.
“Western music touched my heart because I could feel a lot of freedom in the music and this is what I was craving,” he says. “Jimi was such a master, he was just doing whatever came to him in every moment, and I loved that. I think in many ways my approach to music has been modeled not on his music but on his attitude towards his music.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.