A small white car, branded with the words ‘Groupe Bambino’ and a crudely drawn electric guitar, is revving its wheels deeper and deeper into the soft sand of a side alley somewhere on the ragged outskirts of Niamey, the capital of Niger. Bombino cuts the engine and smiles. “I should have taken the turn at speed in second gear,” he chuckles at me without a hint of fluster. “But I had to answer my phone so I screwed up. No bother. We’ll just leave the car here and dig it out later.”
While he and his band unload their bush gear – guitars, battery powered amp, djembe, tea pot and stove – a gaggle of local kids gather around us to point and stare. They recognise Bombino instantly and giggle with excitement. He beams them a smile before sauntering off into the scrubland with his bandmates, his purple robe all a shimmer in the evening light.
Such escapes from the city’s noise and stress are a daily ritual for Bombino. “There’s no better place to play music than in the desert,” he tells me. “In complete tranquility.”
In normal times, Niamey is a laid-back place, sprawling along the banks of the great Niger River with plenty of greenery to break the monotony of shantytowns and dusty suburbs. But the Malian civil war is raging away only half a day’s drive north of here and a pall of paranoia has descended on the city. When I receive an invitation to join Bombino and his mates for a jam, a smoke and a round or two of Touareg tea up on the dunes beyond the city limits, it feels like something heaven-sent.
As we wander along a dried riverbed in the twilight hush, past mud and reed villages where women pounding their grain to salute Bombino, his mobile rings again. It’s his manager calling from the USA. Bombino gets plenty of calls from his manager these days. His new album Nomad, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, is set for imminent worldwide release. North American and European tours are in the offing. The grinding carousel of showbiz duty beckons.
Bombino has been charting a steady international ascent since his last album Agadez and a documentary of the same name came out in 2010. Nomad, with its indi-fanboy-friendly rock distortion and jubilant desert wig-outs seems likely to make this 33-year old Touareg guitarist more famous on the international stage than any other Touareg musician in history besides Tinariwen.
What’s more extraordinary however is Bombino’s fame at home. He’s become a bona fide head-turning airtime-hogging star in his own country, not just amongst the Touareg, who mainly live in Niger’s northern deserts, but amongst the youth of the entire nation, including those belonging to other major ethnic groups such as the Hausa, Jerma and Toubou. That’s something that no other Touareg artists has ever managed to do, not even Tinariwen.
Anyone who knows anything about the recent history of the Touareg, a nomadic people from the southern Sahara whose ancestral homelands were sliced up when frontiers were drawn across the Sahara in the early 1960s, will appreciate the groundbreaking importance of Bombino’s achievement. Now a marginalised minority in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso, the Touareg possess a deep and rich culture, but never before have they enjoyed any kind of cultural hegemony in their home nations. “There are plenty of people here in Niger who listen to our music but don’t understand our lyrics because we sing in a different language to theirs,” Bombino tells me with quiet pride. “But they like it. And thanks to Facebook and You Tube, our fans here can see what we’re doing all over the world.”
Now Bombino wants to convince the rest of the world that the Touareg are a tolerant and peace-loving people who are only trying to protect their millennial culture and essential freedoms. Not that the world ever needed convincing until a few years ago. For decades, the Touareg enjoyed a generally benign image as an oppressed Berber people who were impervious to the rabidly puritanical version of Islam that prevails in the Middle East and proud of their age-old nomadic ways, their music and their poetry.
Recently however, the Touareg name has been dragged through the mud thanks to its association with the rise of radical and violent jihadism in the Sahel. The truth is that only a small clique of Malian Touareg leaders, rather than the population as a whole, ever sought any kind of alliance with violent Al Qaida franchised terror groups in northern Mali. Despite this, the Touareg as a whole are now regularly lumped together with the mad spawn of Bin Laden in the mind of ill-informed global-war-on-terror bores the world over. No less of an ‘expert’ in West African affairs than Jeremy Clarkson was recently moved to refer to the Touareg as a bunch of gun-running terrorists during an episode of Top Gear.
“That man has no right to say that,” retorts Bombino when I tell him about Clarkson’s rebranding of his people. “History speaks for itself. The Touareg have never behaved in that way. Many of us never expected this outcome, or this connection. Because of two or three people, our entire community is suffering. It’s very serious because the future of our people hangs in the balance. France should have intervened five or ten years ago, when the terrorists first arrived in our desert. Now it must finish the battle it’s fighting in Mali. Because if it doesn’t, I’m telling you, things will explode.”
Bombino isn’t alone in thinking that only the French army stands in the way of all out ethnic war in northern Mali. Reports of Malian army attacks against innocent Touareg and Arab civilians have been stacking up in recent weeks. The blood of most southern Malians has been boiled into a fury by what they perceive to be Touareg complicity in their country’s calamitous fall from grace. In many ways, the future has never seemed more dark and threatening.
Which is why it has never been more urgent for Touareg musicians to speak up and educate the world about what’s really going on in the Sahel. But I get the impression that penning lyrical messages of urgent relelvance isn’t Bombino’s natural vocation. Many of the songs on Nomad are Touareg classics by other Touareg groups such as Tinariwen and Terakaft, whose lyrics have been stripped of their deeper poetry and boiled down to whoops and catchphrases that play a supporting role to the rolling desert grooves. “We interpret those songs in our own way, sometimes with our own lyrics” he says. “I like to play an old song which still moves people and at the same time give it a new sound, a new shape, just a bit faster and more energetic than before.”
The message and the poetry, both of which have been essential ingredients in most Touareg music until now, are a work in progress as far as Bombino is concerned. “We’ve begun to work on that aspect these past four or five months,” he offers when I try to probe, “because it’s very important to talk about those issues, to make people understand, to go beyond tribalism.”
Dan Auberbach’s instinctive ability to distil the essence of rock’n’roll and the blues has helped Bombino to perfect a whole new approach to Touareg music – a youthful, almost urban sound that’s resolutely anchored in the here and now. Its main ingredients are raw and rolling dance grooves and long dazzling displays of guitar work rather than lyrical subtlety or the urge to sharpen the minds of audiences back home.
This break with the past is partly intentional of course. “I have a huge respect for the old generation,” Bombino says, “but we’re in 2013 now. We can’t always remain in 1963 [the year of the first Touareg uprising in Mali]. Some of the old musicians are always in a state of revolt. But people must find another way. We must stop thinking in tribal terms, as Touareg or Hausas or whatever. We have to go beyond that.”
Nonetheless, like any Touareg musician of any age, Bombino has no intention of burning all the bridges to his past. That would be culturally impossible. “In some ways my style is a city sound,” he concedes. “But in truth, underneath, the open desert is always there. If you forget your beginnings, you’ll be like a tree without roots. Unstable.”
Hence Bombino’s need for his daily fix of desert tranquillity on the dunes near his home in Niamey, mobile phones and adoring fans notwithstanding. The deep yearning Touareg feels for those infinite Saharan horizons with their blessed freedom from noise, pollution, crowds and time remains at the core of Bombino’s music. It’s also tattooed on his heart. And although he might not possess the lyrical skills of Touareg mentors like Ibrahim Abaraybone or Mohammed Japonais, Bombino cares deeply about what’s going on in his desert home.
“We’ve already suffered enough,” he tells me, those gentle deep-brown eyes tenderising his words. “We don’t want to be like Afghanistan. We only want peace. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 20013