Bombino impresses at the first of a two-night run at The Forge in Camden

Rebellion is a term thrown loosely around in the world of music. However, for internationally-acclaimed singer-songwriter Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar, resistance of censorship, breaking of convention and his upbringing amidst enduring conflict are at the very core of Tishoumaren – the music of his native Tuareg people. It is only with the knowledge of the long struggle of the Tuareg (a group of traditionally nomadic tribes in the southern Sahara) and their arduous battle to return home, that you can begin to fully appreciate the magnitude of the achievement the thirty-six year old has made in emerging, guitar-in-hand, onto the world stage.

Born in 1980 in the Niger desert, with government oppression and ethnic war always looming, Bombino first picked up a guitar left behind by family members fleeing the increasing tensions in the region. Shortly thereafter, he was taken under the wing by fellow Tuareg band leader Haja Bebe and it was around this time,  ‘Bombino’ earned his stage name. Whilst studying music, he would pour over videos of Western greats such as Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler, perhaps influencing his later style, and was also tutored by members of legendary soul rebels Tinariwen.

Amongst Bombino’s native people, music was almost the sole form of political expression which led to the eventual banning of guitars as a symbol of rebellion. During this period, two of his close musician friends were executed for daring to practice their art and it was this incident that forced him, again, to flee his homeland. After the Tuareg finally returned to their native Agadez in 2010, Bombino played a momentous show at the foot of the city’s Grand Mosque and it was this celebrated performance that garnered international attention amongst musical peers (Dan Auberach, of Black Keys fame, produced Bombino’s 2013 album ‘Nomad’) – and spawned the acclaimed documentary Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion.

Perhaps a continuance of his nomadic and boundary-pushing heritage, Bombino’s latest album ‘Azel, released back in April, introduces listeners to an entirely new genre: Tuareggae, a unifying blend of desert blues with instantly-familiar reggae chords. It is that album which is showcased at tonight’s show; the first of a two-night run at The Forge in Camden.

The endless sands and starry canvas of the Sahara desert seem a world away from the North London venue – and they are; but to the testament of The Forge, though looking something like a modern college cafeteria, they are renowned ambassadors for world music and cultural eclecticism. 

Bombino takes to the stage wearing a traditional Tuareg scarf and leather jacket, and flanked by three members of his band. There is no support act tonight but the band perform a warm-up of sorts, with the opening few songs of the set a purer, more melodic introduction to the Tuareg style, accompanied by traditional percussion, while Bombino leads with his acoustic guitar. Instantly the crowd are beguiled; adopting the whooping, ululating and pulsating hand-claps so characteristic of North African music. 

By the fourth song of the set, the djembe drums are carried aside and Bombino switches from acoustic to electric guitar as the tempo increases and the Caribbean influences begin to radiate. 

With lyrics focusing on past struggles and messages of peace, Bombino sings in his native Tamasheq (the language of the Tuareg people) but the driving percussion and reggae nuances that define ‘Azel’ are universal. An evident language barrier makes for some transitional pauses in the earlier songs, but after album-opener ‘Akhar Zaman’ and genre-defining ‘Timtar’ enliven the audience, Bombino, interpreted by his charming bassist, exchanges words and smiles with the crowd. 

That artist-audience relationship, so integral to the genre, strengthens throughout the seventeen song set whilst the mélange of musical influences ensure the crowd is kept animated as the ensemble effortlessly run through the entire tracklisting of ‘Azel. Meanwhile the feverish percussion provides a bedrock for Bombino’s slick and commanding improvisations.

An intense performance of ‘Iyat Ninhay’ (the longest track on the album) reaches a thrilling finale via intense syncopation and pounding drum beats, brings the set to a close. However, to chants of “Bombino, Bombino, Bombino…”, the virtuoso returns to the stage shortly followed by his band who are each introduced during the final of a three song encore. 

Azel was well-received by critics worldwide and, based on tonight’s performance it is not hard to see why. The fusing of staccato chords and dryer Berber sound is seamless and, with the message conveyed with the music, almost natural. Bombino reaches out for influences without straying unrecognisably far from his roots.

Arm in arm with his fellow musicians as he finally bows out to rapturous applause, and with a smile as wide as the Sahara skies, Bombino seems to acknowledge a sense of triumph in bringing his gift of music to an adoring global audience.

This Bombino article was written by Elliot Houchell, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson.

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