Blinded by the lightbulbs inside the small changing room at the back of Paris’ tktktkt, Bombino is wearing a heavy down-jacket without breaking a sweat.
Born Omara Moctar in Agadez, Niger, he’s used to the heat: he belongs to the Tuaregs - a nomadic people from the Saharan region. Today’s gig is taking place in a much smaller venue compared to festivals such as Coachella where the band has performed over the last few years. Bombino has travelled the continents with his music and recorded his first five albums in countries around the world but his latest – Deran – is the first to be recorded in Africa; in Casablanca to be precise.
“We always wanted to return home,” says Bombino. “It’s not Niger – but is still Africa. We were able to give space to creativity in a different way there, with our land so close.” The influence of his homeland is obviously important and noticeable in his mesmerizing music – so much so that it has led to the creation of a new term in the music dictionary. The band likes to refer to their own genre as Tuareggae – a mixture of traditional Tuareg rhythms, blues and reggae. Yet thanks to its biting electric guitar and solid drumbeat, Bombino is emblematic of a new direction for Tuareg music – which bands such as Tinariwen and Terakaft have helped usher onto the rock scene.
The fact all tracks are sung in Tamasheq (a dialect of the Tuareg language) – is, of course, a homage to Bombino’s heritage. His songs speak of memories of the desert’s beauty and its valleys’ green trees – as well as of the necessity to acknowledge the past in order to build a positive future. “Far from your ancestral culture your personality disappears, along with your spirit,” goes the English translation of ‘Akham Zaman’ – one of the songs he performs later on in the evening in front of an ecstatic (and noticeably cosmopolitan) crowd.
No-one who attends a Bombino gig is able to stand still. The band’s hypnotic rhythm, borrowed from folk melodies, awakes even the most reluctant of dancers. It’s an effortless, spellbinding performance that feels particularly spontaneous and adaptable. “We rarely practice,” admits drummer Corey Wilhelm – who is a Bostonian and the only non-Tuareg in the band. “It is an ever evolving free-flow”.
The relaxed nature of the showed is mirrored by the varied (and perhaps incongruous) mix of people in the audience today – anyone from hipsters to hippies and suited-and-booted businessmen who’ve come straight from the office. All of them are swaying, captivated by the music, but few are aware of the meaning of the words they are listening to. Many of the songs have a poignant political – and hopeful – message to boot. Ever since the mid-80S, after a harsh drought hit the Sahel, rebels in Tuareg communities started using music as tool to spread messages for change. When the Tuareg rebellion began in 1990, with Tuareg groups fighting to establish their own nation state, musicians found themselves targeted by their governments’ repression. A peace agreement followed, and lyrics largely shifted their purpose to educating listeners on the importance of democracy. Conflicts ignited again in 2007, this time taking the lives of two of the musicians in Bombino’s band at the time.
Displacement is a familiar issue for Bombino. He’s been forced to cross borders in search of safety because of the instability within Niger since a young age. Inevitably, this seeped into his lyrics. Today’s increasing debates on border-control only amplify the message of Bombino’s music. “Africa is so rich [in natural resources] but yet so poor. I often speak with the people back at home; they pay so much money and risk their life [to get to Europe],” says Bombino, a cigarette burning in his hand. “Still, I do understand why.”
When asked if his increasing success in the Western world will ever affect the language chosen for his lyrics, Bombino smiles. “What language should I pick? One [might want] French, the other English – somebody would want Japanese. Music is a universal language: my message is for everybody willing to listen.”