Once you hear the desert blues of the Sahara you will never be the same. There is nothing else on earth like the sound of the Tuareg guitar. With the recent history of the Tuareg people steeped in persecution and armed rebellion, not to mention Muslim extremist groups seizing large swathes of Northern Mali and imposing strict Sharia law, the Tuareg’s have been displaced and dispersed, often living in exile in nearby Algeria or Libia. Yet the music has prevailed, and despite the trials and tribulations, it remains some of the most evocative life affirming sounds you will ever hear, a place where delta blues meets Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix. Artists like Mali elder statesmen Tinariwen, or young guns Tamikrest are well known in the West, though in recent years the voice of nearby Niger’s Tuareg population has increasingly been heard, with the likes of Etran Finitawa, Mdou Moctar and Omara “Bombino” Moctar all releasing incredible though quite diverse albums on international labels. Bombino’s rise in particular has been fascinating, a relentless live performer, touring incessantly, his debut release was recorded in Nashville by Dan Auberch of the Black Keys and signalled a real desire to open up some cross cultural communication. Performing at Womadeliade next month, he’s taken the opportunity while in Australia to travel far off the traditional touring path, performing eveywhere from Perth, to Darwin to Meeniyan in rural Victoria. Cyclic Defrost took the opportunity to ask some email questions to one artist for whom the very act of performing live is an affirmation of freedom.
Bob Baker Fish: I spent a lot of time in Europe last year and you seemed to be constantly touring, constantly playing in a different country. Can you tell me what you enjoy about playing live and touring?
Bombino: Besides my wife and daughters, playing music is really my favorite thing in the world. I feel a euphoria on stage that can not be produced any other way. It is pure joy and liberation for me to get on stage and just play and play and play. It’s like medicine for all that burdens the soul. The life of a touring artist is very difficult, very tiring, but at the end of each miserable day of traveling, stepping on stage and feeling the warm energy of the audience you forget immediately any negative feelings you carried through the day.
Bob Baker Fish: Do you find that you absorb musical influences from the places you visit?
Bombino: Yes I think so. It is very hard to say precisely ‘this part of my music was influenced from that’, but I can feel that as I travel around the world more my music is changing. I think it is becoming more universal music. I think I have felt the response of so many people all over the world I am developing a sense of what people like to hear and what they want to see when they pay their money to go see a concert.
Bob Baker Fish: Where are you currently based?
Bombino: I live in Niamey, the capital city of Niger, with my wife and my two daughters. Whenever I can I go up to visit my family in Agadez up in the north of Niger.
Bob Baker Fish: Given that you’ve moved around so much in the past, do you feel much kinship with other Tuareg artists like Mdou Moctar, Etran Finatawa, Tinariwen, or Tamikrest?
Bombino: Yes, we are all like family. It has always been this way among Tuareg musicians in Mali and Niger, no matter what is happening for them in the West. We have a close bond, all of us.
Bob Baker Fish: You recorded in Nashville with Dan Auberch. What prompted you to record there? The sound on Nomad seems bigger, more rock orientated, was that something you were trying to achieve?
Bombino: Dan invited us to record our new album in Nashville with him so we said OK and we went there. It was really that simple (laughs). The sound that we got on the album was exactly what we were trying to accomplished. We wanted to capture the energy of the live show and I think we did a good job doing that. It is very hard to recreate the same energy that you have on stage in the studio. So we just all played together and allowed our spirits to travel to a similar place as performing and we pressed record.
Bob Baker Fish: What continues to excite you about playing music? Has it changed much since you began?
B: No, to be honest I still get the same feeling playing music as I did when I first started playing the guitar as a refugee in Algeria. For me it is a feeling like flying. A feeling of pure joy.
Bob Baker Fish: What is your favourite musical memory?
Bombino: My favorite performance of my life was when I got to play a concert at the Grand Mosque in Agadez to celebrate the end of the rebellion and the Tuareg’s return to Agadez. This was one of the happiest moments of my life. I am grateful that Ron Wyman caught this on video for his documentary and there is a clip of it on youtube.
Bob Baker Fish: Tell me what it means to you to play the electric guitar?
Bombino: Freedom. That’s it. Pure freedom.
Bob Baker Fish: Music seems to play quite a communal role in Niger, do you see much difference in the way music is consumed in the west?
Bombino: No honestly I dont think people experience music very differently, it is just a matter of the styles that are their preference. But all over the world I see people enjoying all kinds of music but in essentially the same way.
Bob Baker Fish: Given you have such a spotlight in the west do you feel a responsibility to highlight the struggles of the Tuareg so there is more awareness? Do you ever feel like you should be a role model for Tuareg youth?
Bombino: I am an ambassador for Tuareg culture and I think I am a role model for the Tuareg youth. I am actually already working on a project to build a Tuareg music school and community center in Agadez for the youth there. This is a project that will take many months and maybe even years but I am really excited about it.
Bob Baker Fish: Are you currently working on a new album?
Bombino: We are planning the next album. We will record it later this year and release it next year, inshallah (God-willing).
Bombino Australian Tour 2015
Feb 25 Perth Festival Perth
Feb 27 Tanks Arts Centre Cairns
Feb 28 Verrierdale Full Moon Party Sunshine Coast
Mar 01 Railway Club Darwin
Mar 05 The Basement – Dancefloor mode Sydney
Mar 06 WOMADelaide Adelaide
Mar 07 Panama Festival Golconda
Mar 08 Golden Plains Festival
Mar 09 WOMADelaide Adelaide
Mar 11 Brunswick Music Festival Melbourne
Mar 12 Meeniyan Hall Meeniyan