The musical expression of a people's pain

A man (Nigerien Musician Oumara Moctar/Bombino) dressed entirely in a white traditional Tuareg outfit and headdress against a white backdrop
Nigerien musician Bombino's album 'Sahel' is 'a powerful and timely album that deserves to be heard by as many people as possible,' writes Richard Marcus (image: Ron Whyman)

Like many Tamasheq musicians and many of his people, Niger-born Bombino has spent a lot of time in exile. On his latest album, "Sahel", he sings of the pain of exile and the importance for a people of holding on to its culture and values

By Richard Marcus

The Sahel is a broad strip of land cutting through the African continent running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Starting in Senegal and Mauritania in the West, then passing through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan, it ends in Eritrea in the East. 

Coincidently, this area has long been the homeland of the nomadic Kel Tamasheq or Tuareg people. So it is only fitting that Niger-based musician Bombino has named his recent release Sahel.

Oumara Moctar was given the name "Bombino" because he was so young when he first started playing music, but the name has stuck. 

As with many Tamasheq musicians, Bombino has spent a great deal of time living in exile. In the past, the government of Niger made it illegal to be a "guitar musician". Musicians like Bombino write songs reminding their people who they are and the importance of holding on to their culture. 

For the Tamasheq, this also means being able to live their traditional lifestyle in the desert. Like Indigenous peoples throughout the world, their culture is intertwined with their environment. Being cut off from that environment destroys their sense of identity and their feeling of community. 

However, since uranium was discovered under the sands of the Sahel in Niger, access to their traditional lands has been curtailed, and those who advocate for it to be returned to the Tamasheq have faced everything from jail time to exile. Bombino spent many of his younger years in neighbouring Burkina Faso in order to stay safe.

In the cover art for Bombino's album "Sahel", a section of graphic art appears to have been torn away to reveal the eyes of the artist, who is wearing a traditional Tuareg headdress, behind it
Heartfelt, powerful and clear messages on an album that conveys a strong sense of identity: Bombino's album 'Sahel' (image: Partisan Records)

New musical approach to desert blues

Bombino straddles both the traditional and contemporary worlds. Musically this means that while he's grounded in the same influences as Tinariwen and other older bands, he also incorporates more sounds from international popular music. The most obvious example of this is his usage of a full drum kit and its prominent place in a song's mix.

He and his band – Kawissan Mohamed (guitar and vocals), Corey Wilhelm (drums, djembe, calabash, congos, percussion), Youba Dia, (bass), Mohamed Araki, (organ), Adam Bentriq, (krakebs), and Mhassa Walet Amoumenemm (backing vocals) – manage to combine the new and the old in perfect harmony. 

One of the hallmarks of what's become known as the "desert blues" played by Tamasheq bands has been the almost trance-like quality of their songs. The rhythms, voices and guitar merge to carry listeners through a rolling soundscape reminiscent of the environment the bands hail from. 

While Bombino and his band retain this sensation, they infuse it with a contemporary sound that not only distinguishes them from other bands, but also makes the music more accessible to a younger audience without sacrificing anything in the way of quality. The result is a powerful, driving music that has the same, almost mystical, impact listeners have come to expect from bands from this region.

Bombino may be taking a new approach to desert blues musically, but lyrically his music still looks to remind Tamasheq of who they are and the values they have lived by for centuries. With so many of them forced off the land into cities and away from the way of life of previous generations, this becomes more important than ever. As has been seen all over the world, a dissatisfied and disassociated people are a population vulnerable to the easy answers of drugs and crime.

The album's opening track, "Tazidert" (Patience), is a compassionate reminder of the virtues of patience: "Patience is lawful and impatience is unlawful/Opening your heart to divulge your love to the one you love is better/Declaring your love to the one you love causes no pain in the soul/Patience is lawful and impatience is unlawful."

While the connection between expressions of love and patience may not be obvious, Bombino is simply making the point that anything positive is better for you than the negative results of impatience. Avowals of love bring happiness to the world while acting through impatience can cause damage to your community. 

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Gentle life lessons

Bombino doesn't just give gentle life lessons with his lyrics, he expresses the communal pain experienced by his people at being forced into exile and made out to be the villains when they are the ones being persecuted. 

"Is Chilan" (Two Days) talks about the pain of exile and how sometimes people who flee injustice end up in the same situation: "Memories of a time of injustice that left remorse in my soul/During which the voiceless victim is considered the perpetrator/Having no choice, my brothers you accepted to live in these painful conditions/You fled bad conditions to find yourself in injustice."

One only has to look at how most refugees are treated in the world today to understand the truth of those lyrics. However, having spent time in exile himself, these words have a special resonance when sung by Bombino. He might sing them in a rather matter-of-fact manner, but combined with his compelling music the message of the song is heartfelt, powerful and clear. 

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The importance of unity

In 2012, a Tuareg rebellion was launched in Mali. The rebellion was hijacked by radical Islamic groups who proceeded to attempt to ban music and attack musicians. This rebellion left deep divisions within the Tamasheq community. 

Knowing that the only hope for his people is to be unified, Bombino writes in "Nik Sant Awanha" (My Brothers, I know our situation), "My brothers, I know our situation: the division and the exile that affect us in disorder and a lack of organisation that we cannot overcome/We are far from acquiring our rights and our freedom, all you see is a lie/The desert is our land, our culture is our identity, only union can allow us to defend them."

Bombino might still go by the youthful nickname given to him at the beginning of his career, but he has been making music and espousing the cause of his people for more than a decade. Not only is his music a beautiful amalgamation of the old and the new, his lyrics are potent and timely reminders that his people are still here and still fighting for their rights. 

Sahel is a powerful and timely album that deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

Richard Marcus

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