Rocking in a Freer World

Tuareg guitar player Bombino gives protest music an electric edge in West Africa

December 1, 2011

West African guitarist Omara Moctar — also known as Bombino — has endured political exile, violence and a ban on his instrument in his hometown of Agadez, Niger.

The Tuareg people of North and West Africa are nomadic, with populations stretching through five nations. Guitarist Omara Moctar, also known as Bombino, is from Agadez, the capital of Niger. But due to Tuareg uprisings protesting oppressive government policies against his people, he’s also been exiled to Libya, Burkina Faso and Algeria.

Back in 2007, however, two musicians who played in his band were not able to escape the violence in Niger.

“They were my friends and I did not see them take up arms, but I know they believed in the rebellion,” says Bombino, 31, through manager Eric Herman, who translated for the French-speaking artist. “When they were killed, I knew immediately I had to leave again or I would be next for sure.”

Exile can be a brutal existence, but some positive things happened during Bombino’s multiple times away from home: He acquired his first guitar at age 12 in Algeria and later discovered the music of Ali Farka Toure, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker and other ax handlers who would help shape his sound. Bombino’s new CD, “Agadez,” showcases his signature hypnotic desert-blues licks, which always feel ready to bubble over into a ripping Jimmy Page-esque solo.

Bombino’s guitar has another kind of power, too. In the 1940s, American protest-music legend Woody Guthrie’s six-string famously sported a sticker reading “this machine kills fascists,” a sentiment the modern-day Niger government seemingly took to heart: It banned guitars during the 2007 Tuareg rebellion.

“Guitars were getting very popular, and people would always gather to listen to the performances,” Bombino says. “It became connected to big public gatherings and then the authorities started to treat it as a symbol of the rebellion.”

In January 2010, Bombino finally returned to a peaceful Agadez and played a triumphant free concert for more than a thousand people.

“I was simply feeling a great hope for the region that day,” Bombino recalls. “It felt good to play there and to give the people a fun concert to celebrate. But all I was thinking was, ‘I hope that this peace will last a long time this time.’”

Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; with Sahel, Fri., 9 p.m., $20; 877-725-8849. (U St.-Cardozo)
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