Some years ago, the American documentary filmmaker Ron Wyman was bouncing around the northwestern hump of Africa, in the borderless land framed by the artificial nations of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso populated mostly by the Tuareg people. The long drives were accompanied by the sound of a languorous guitar on a bootleg cassette tape, each tight phrase linked to the next in an endless chain of riffs that stretched across the desert. “Who is that?” Wyman wanted to know. “Bombino,” he was told: a skinny, shy young man from the city of Agadez, in Niger, named Omara Moctar, though everyone called him by the bastardized Italian word bambino — “little kid.”
It took two years for Wyman to find and befriend Bombino, because the instrument he played was so important to the ferociously independent Tuareg that for a while the government of Niger banned it. It’s too dangerous in Agadez; try the capital, Niamey, Wyman was told — no, wait, he just left for Ouagadougou. But whatever city The Kid happens to be calling home, his real habitat is a floating jam session that might be taking place in a friend’s living room, in the courtyard of a house, at an outdoor wedding, or miles out in the bush, where a long cable links a clattering generator to the musicians sitting cross-legged on an old carpet spread out on the ground.
Bombino’s first album, Agadez, captures the casual camaraderie of the Tuareg world, the sense that music is an aid to friendship and festivities. An armed rebellion in 2007 and the ensuing crackdown flung many Tuareg — including the Moctar family — into exile; when peace returned, Bombino celebrated with a concert in the plaza in front of Great Mosque in Agadez. The stage was a grid of mud bricks covered with a rug, and the crowd quickly overwhelmed the few rows of plastic chairs. The guitarist was swallowed by the throng, until someone thought to hoist him on their shoulders; Bombino kept playing without a hiccup, drawing raw energy from the audience and beaming it back out to them transformed into smoky, sophisticated guitar licks.
Bombino claims Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler as early influences, and while you can hear his affinity for big-sound blues and rhapsodic solos, his playing has a less showy, more disciplined spirit. He doesn’t spin off into stratospheric guitar-hero noodling. Instead, he threads his way through the weave of rhythms, circling around the tune, kneading and bending as if constantly trying to find its most perfect form. He sings, too, exhorting his people in a plaintive tenor that’s carried on the interlocking gears of percussion and guitar.
Agadez had the happy, handmade feel of music played while over a nearby fire, a goat roasting slowly on its spit. The second album, Nomad, is a different story. In the last few years, Bombino has vaulted beyond his local celebrity and started touring abroad. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys invited him to his studio in Nashville, where he found the exact opposite of his home terrain: a soundproofed wonderland of new technology and vintage amps, and the rich, moist petri dish of Delta blues, country and southern rock. Bombino had been reared on the art of making do; now he had to adapt to the burden of open-ended possibilities.
The result is both fascinating and frustrating. In Nomad, he sounds like a great guitarist with a signature style, fronting a band that only sort of speaks his language. The slippery twang of a lap steel guitar, the rock ‘n’ roll drum kit, the brawny girders of electric bass, the churchy reverb added at the mixing console — all these luscious American additives mix awkwardly with his plainer outdoor style.
A quiet, self-effacing man who communicates with the non-Tuareg world in idiosyncratic French, Bombino doesn’t have much use for authenticity. His people were nomads, leading camel trains across the Sahara to the cosmopolitan ports of the Mediterranean. Later, they drove, fed and guided tourists, and these contacts fed into their rich cultural hybrid. They have absorbed Islam and adapted it to their use; they have also done the same with music. Today, that part of Africa is once again isolated by violence, so it’s up to a new kind of nomad, the international touring musician, to go hunt down new sources of cultural wealth. That’s what Bombino was doing in Nashville: mainlining new sounds the way, as a teenager, he internalized Hendrix. The end result is not Nomad, but some future development in a tradition that never stays still.