Listening to Bombino’s Mahegagh, it’s not hard to imagine yourself somewhere at the edge of the Sahara at dusk. Or at Woodstock. Or both. The 32-year-old musician from Niger sings of solitude, loss and longing in his native language and style. But halfway in, vocals give way to a guitar that tells an entirely different tale. Rhythmic reverbs and sharp long notes recall an Arabic oud (lute) as well as Jimi Hendrix in the final hours of the 1969 festival. You’re in two places at once.
You’ll have plenty of opportunity to transport yourself as Bombino brings his guitar to the Amarrass Desert Music Festival in Delhi this week. The festival has been organised by the Amarrass Society for Performing Arts, a group dedicated to celebrating and preserving folk music.
You’ll remember them as the ones behind the fantastic Manganiyar Seduction concert in Delhi two years ago. They also gave India a chance to hear the Malian singer-guitarist Vieux Farka Touré last year and produced Mitha Bol, an album of Rajasthani folk sounds to much critical acclaim.
This year’s edition of the festival goes deeper into the desert with artists like Bombino, whose own musical journey is entwined with the sandy dunes of his homeland.
Striking a chord
Born Omara Moctar in a camp of nomad-warrior Berbers called Tuaregs, Bombino’s life changed forever when, at 12, a Tuareg rebellion in Niger forced him and part of his family to flee to Algeria. This was where the boy picked up a new instrument – the guitar. His skills followed him back home a few years later, earning him a spot with a band and the moniker, Bombino.
Moctar’s father, however, disapproved of his son’s inclinations, and Bombino, 16, left Niger once more. This time for Libya. “I first saw a Hendrix video [there],” Bombino recalls. “We watched a lot of rock artists’ videos at that time. I was the most impressed with Jimi because he was so free. I’ve learned to let myself get lost in the music and just trust my guitar like it is playing itself. Jimi showed me that this was possible.”
A youth spent mastering guitar licks while herding animals near the Tripoli desert meant that Bombino was already a popular musician when he returned to the city of Agadez in Niger. His first album became a local hit, bringing with it gigs and a chance to record a desert blues version of the Rolling Stones’ Hey Negrita with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts in 2006. “To me they were just strange old guys,” admits the musician. “It was only later that I learned that they were huge rock stars. I didn’t believe it.” He didn’t believe his luck later that year either, when Angelina Jolie ended up using him as her guide to the region. “A friend stole a kiss from her. He was the only one brave enough. The rest of us were too shy,” he says.
An artist in exile
But in 2007, another rebellion broke out. Bombino joined the Tuaregs in the struggle only to see fellow musicians get killed. It was time for exile again – to Burkina Faso and another surprise.
Filmmaker Ron Wyman who’d spent the last year looking for him took Bombino to Cambridge to record an album, Agadez, featuring songs that honoured Tuareg culture, the hardships of youth and love. By the time they returned to Niger to complete it, the Tuaregs had surrendered and been allowed to return. Bombino played a concert at the base of the Grand Mosque of Agadez for over a thousand people, all celebrating peace.
Sounds of change
Bombino’s mission is simple – to help the Tuaregs secure peace and their cultural heritage. “I am a soldier of peace, not of war,” he says. “There is less violence in Niger today, thank God. But there is always a danger of it returning. We can never relax and say ‘OK, the war is over, we can go back to our old ways’. That is why I sing about peace and brotherhood.”
And the people are definitely responding. “The shows in Niger – they are crazy,” he explains. “It’s chaos a lot of the time. The stage gets crowded with people dancing. Outside Africa, the crowds do not know the music in the same way, they do not understand the words. But by the end of the show, they understand the spirit of the music and let it transport them to Agadez.”
Tar Hani In this song about separated lovers, the lyrics ask a lover to Put my heart and yours together everywhere you go. Bombino’s guitar starts out smooth, but builds up into a frenzied, haunting solo that proves why he’s called the Jimi Hendrix of the desert.
Ahoulaguine Akaline I greet my country, where I left my sisters and my beloved, and you know that my soul is already burning, sings Bombino.
Iyat Idounia Ayasahen The singer cautions against seeking wealth, as it sets two friends apart. The song is about how life can separate friends.
Mahegagh What shall I do against this endless solitude. It is located in the bottom of my heart. And lives on it every moment. Solitude is a frequent theme in Tuareg poetry, as the nomads spend time far from home.
Use "Bombino + Niger" as your keyword to find these songs on YouTube or Amarrass.com
Other acts you just can’t miss
Padma Shri awardee Sakar Khan doesn’t play in public very often. But when he does, the 76-year-old grandmaster of the Manganiyars is a treat to hear and see. Khan plays the kamancha, a near-extinct bowed instrument with a goat-skin soundbox and three main gut strings with 14 metal strings. It harks back to the lost bowed Raba’ab of Central Asia and its roots back almost to the eighth century. Khan himself has performed with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison and held audiences rapt in the USA, France, Japan and the erstwhile USSR.
An album, At Home with Sakar Khan, was released by Amarrass Records earlier this year. BaBa Zula
Levent Akman, Murat Ertel and Cosar Kamçi make up this 16-year-old Turkish alternative group. Their unique psychedelic sound (which they pretty much invented) combines traditional Turkish instruments, electronica, reggae and dub, with the core sound coming from the saz, a Turkish stringed instrument with a bright, high-pitched sound. They’ve performed across Europe, at festivals in Denmark, Bulgaria, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Poland and the Venice Biennale. They’ve also been featured in Fatih Akin’s documentary Crossing The Bridge about Istanbul’s music scene and have released seven albums to critical acclaim. Barmer Boys
Mangey Khan (vocals, harmonium), Mangu Khan (dholak), Bhungar Khan (khartal) and Rais Khan (morchang, bhapang) are only in their 30s, but bring with them the centuries-old musical tradition of the Manganiyar people. The two-year-old group is a leading example of Rajasthani folk and sufi music, though they blend styles as diverse as Marwari wedding songs, qawwalis and beatboxing. The critically acclaimed group has performed alongside Vieux Farka Touré, Mamadou Diabaté, Rupa & the April Fishes, and UK’s Jason Singh – Dharohar Project. Their debut album comes out on Amarrass Records in December 2012
The Amarrass people will also be organising classes on how to play the morchang and khartaal with Rais Khan and Bhungar Khan of Barmer Boys; morchang making by Mohan Lal Lohar; singing and guitar lessons by Alan Rego; a display of antique and rare musical instruments from Jaipur, and an "instrument petting zoo" that encourages kids and adults to touch, feel and try unusual instruments like the djembe and khartaal.
Make sure you’re there!
WHAT: The Amarrass Desert Music Festival, essentially 14 hours of world music from Asia and Africa over two days
WHEN: December 1 and 2, 3pm to 10pm
WHERE: Zorba, Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road (next to Sultanpur Metro Station)
FOR MORE INFO: Visit amarrass.com or call 4666 1200
From HT Brunch, November 25
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch