Guitars represent peace to Tuareg artist Bombino
Like most nomadic peoples, the Tuareg of North Africa don’t set much store in material possessions, other than the tools that help them survive the sweltering heat and blistering sand storms of the Sahara. Among those tools, however, are a number of musical instruments, testifying to the importance of music-making and community in their peripatetic lives.
“Among our instruments,” says Tuareg singer-guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar, “is one called the tende, which is similar to a djembe, but it’s bigger and played by two people. That’s something men would play, and women would sing their songs to it. And then there’s a spike-fiddle-type instrument called the emzad, a traditional violin or fiddle. That, the women would play while the men would sing. And there’s a precursor to the guitar called a takemba, that has just one string, similar to a [West African] ngoni.”
These days, however, many Tuareg have turned to a more familiar instrument: the guitar. And as Bombino explains in a three-way Skype conversation aided by his manager and translator Eric Herman, the instrument signifies more than just the intrusion of rock-music mores into traditional life.
“The history of the guitar with the Tuareg is interesting,” the 32-year-old musician says, speaking in fluent French from a Portland, Oregon, tour stop. “It’s been associated with rebellion and with modernity, but to me the guitar in Tuareg culture symbolizes peace. Whenever Tuareg people are assembled and there’s guitars around, that means that things are okay, that everything’s more or less peaceful.”
That feeling is exemplified by the final track on Bombino’s sophomore album, 2011’s Agadez. An acoustic coda to an otherwise amped-up fusion of modern and traditional sounds, “Tebsakh Dalet” symbolizes the current state of affairs in Bombino’s home country, Niger. After decades of turmoil—which led his family into Algerian exile for several years—and despite regional conflicts in neighbouring Mali and elsewhere, Niger has accepted its nomads.
“The situation for the Tuareg in Niger right now is the best that it’s been in my lifetime,” Bombino says. “Tuareg people are very well integrated into the rest of society: they’re going to school, to university; they’re getting jobs in various industries, including the government. I’m very thankful for that—and nervous, too, hoping that it will endure.
“So that song,” he continues, “talks about the beauty of life, the beauty of people. It makes me really feel at peace, and that’s why I thought it would be the right way to end an album—to give a peaceful feeling, and invoke the beauty of the place where I’m from.”
Bombino plays the Rio Theatre next Thursday (August 16).