Moving sounds of the modern Sahara

Boston Globe, May 22, 2011

Communities that go through wrenching change often find strength in concepts they use to define themselves and claim their identity.

For the Tuareg of the Sahara, that word is “ashek.” It means something like honor and dignity. It guides the Tuareg’s behavior in a world where borders and economic change have hampered their nomadic ways and pitted them against governments that often see them as a threat.

In recent years, the Tuareg have seen conflict with authorities in Mali, Niger, and elsewhere. But war and peace have produced a remarkable body of music that expresses “ashek” with acoustic and electric guitars, catapulting Tuareg bands – notably Tinariwen – to the front of the world music scene.

The newest Tuareg sensation may be the deepest. “Agadez,” the new record by Bombino – the stage name of guitarist/singer Omara Moctar – is a gem that avoids the hard trance of some other Tuareg acts and balances aggressive guitar riffs with beautiful, earnest melodies. It sounds like the desert, but without stereotype – no ululations or ultra-sparse blues, but assured songs with a modern feel.

Bombino, 31, plays the Brighton Music Hall on July 14. He named the album for the remote city in Niger where he grew up – a historic place where trans-Saharan trade caravans stopped and more recently an unlikely guitar capital.

“It’s a city where people are attached to music,” Bombino says by phone from Agadez. “So many people here play guitar, there is a lot of exchange. There are no music schools, but people learn the chords and figure it out.”

For his part, Bombino first picked up a guitar as a child, while in exile with his family in Algeria. “I just picked it up like that, I don’t even know what I did,” he says. “But I felt something I really liked – not that this was going to be my vocation, but just a happy, natural feeling.”

It drove Bombino to seek guitar classes once back in Niger, hanging around a cultural center until they let him take lessons for free. As his chops grew, he sat in with local groups. Still, in his early 20s, he made his living in the tourist trade, like many in Agadez, as driver and assistant for desert expeditions.

It took a happy accident involving a filmmaker from Cambridge, Ron Wyman, to spark Bombino’s global appeal. While researching a documentary on the Tuareg, Wyman found himself on a two-week drive in the bush with a cassette home recording of Bombino the only music in the car.

“I never got tired of it,” Wyman says. “It became the soundtrack for this magnificent region and culture. I decided I had to track this guy down.

By the time he succeeded, in 2008, a Tuareg rebellion was under way in Niger. Two of Bombino’s musicians had been killed, and Bombino was waiting things out in neighboring Burkina Faso, where Wyman found him.

The next year, Bombino spent time in Cambridge, recording part of “Agadez” in Wyman’s home studio with Boston-area musicians, and playing a gig at Johnny D’s in Somerville.

But some of the album’s strongest moments come from the sessions held in Agadez in early 2010, after the rebellion was over, playing with local musicians for a local audience. In a powerful scene in Wyman’s film “Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion,” Bombino – with the sultan’s permission – gave a concert in front of the city’s great mosque to celebrate the return of peace.

For Wyman, Bombino’s music epitomizes the Tuareg in transition between war and peace, between nomadism and new ways of living. “He sets an example of how to adapt to the modern world and still keep the `ashek,’ ” Wyman says.

Bombino has some practical goals. He laments the impact of war on tourism, which gave jobs to many of the Tuareg for whom herding was no longer viable. “Things have come to a standstill,” Bombino says. But with recent elections in Niger, he’s also optimistic. “I’m very proud. Now it’s time for us to make progress.”