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Omara 'Bombino' Moctar: Guitar hero of the desert

By Teo Kermeliotis and Jessica Ellis, CNN
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Omara "Bombino" Moctar is part of a new generation of Tuareg musicians
  • The guitarist from Niger combines music of the ages with riffs of Western blues and rock
  • His haunting sounds captures life in the desert and the spirit of his people

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- For Omara Moctar, the electrifying Tuareg guitarist better known as "Bombino," there is no better place to play music than the majestic starkness of the desert.

"There's the heat, there's the wind, but after all of that, you find yourself at night in the most beautiful place," says Bombino, who is part of a new generation of Tuareg musicians performing "desert rock" on a global stage.

"The stars seem to be right there, next to you ...and the night feels good -- sometimes with the light of the moon and the changing dune colors, it's unbelievable, really."

Inspired by the changing landscape of the Niger desert, Bombino's haunting jams capture life in the desert and the spirit of his people.

'Desert Rock' inspired by changing dunes
'Desert Rock' in America

His almost mystic sound evokes the searing heat, the blustery wind and the shimmering horizon of the Sahel, combining music of the ages with riffs of Western blues and rock.

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Following in the footsteps of fellow Tuareg musicians -- and now international stars -- Tinariwen, Bombino's debut album has attracted critical acclaim from around the world.

Called "Agadez" -- named after the largest town in northern Niger -- Bombino's album honors Tuareg culture, the hardships of youth and love.

"With music we can have dialogue," says Bombino, who lists Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure and Jimi Hendrix as major influences on him. "We can talk openly and explain ourselves without using violence, which isn't necessary."

The Tuareg are nomadic tribesmen in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Along with fighting the harsh climate of the endless desert, they have also been battling for their independence in the last 20 years, staging rebellions against the governments in Niger and Mali.

Born in 1980, Bombino spent his childhood on the move as one rebellion followed another. He first picked up a guitar at the age of 12 while in exile in Algeria, where he had fled with members of his family after the first Tuareg rebellion in Mali and Niger.

When democracy dawned in Niger, Bombino returned home.

"I went back to Agadez and at the time in Agadez to have access to instruments or a place to play, we needed to be part of a political party," he remembers. "It was then they named me 'Bombino."

Everyone has had enough and does not want to return to the same situation.
Omara "Bombino" Moctar

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He spent the following years honing his craft as a working musician, performing at weddings and political rallies.

But Bombino was forced to leave Niger once again in 2007 after two of his band members were killed in another uprising. He and thousands of others fled seeking refuge in Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso.

It was in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, where he was tracked by Ron Wyman, the American documentary maker of "Agadez: The Music and the Rebellion."

"Ron was in Agadez in 2007," says Bombino. "When he left for Iferouane, he got my cassette and he had it in his stereo during his entire trip in the desert."

Bombino's imaginative guitar playing and hypnotizing grooves entranced Wyman who embarked on a year-long mission to find the Tuareg musician.

"Ron came to Ouagadougou first and he told me about his documentary. Then, we made the album," says Bombino

A musician in Tuareg society is a person who is always well-received.
Omara "Bombino" Moctar

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The guitarist and songwriter recorded part of his debut offering at Wyman's house in the United States. Then they both went back to Agadez to complete the album that has won scores of fans of across the world and made Bombino an influential voice back home.

Today Bombino is using his growing status to bring peace and celebration in troubled Niger.

"Everyone has had enough and does not want to return to the same situation," says Bombino

"A musician in Tuareg society is a person who is always well-received," he notes. "I'm in contact with the Niger government to make a small tour happen to calm and soothe the youth, and it's important to see this peace that we bring."

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