Authentic Rebellion: The Rock and Roll of the Sahara

Desert rock has a new champion, and he’s come all the way from the searing heat of the Sahara to tour America. His name is Bombino and he’s a Tuareg, a people that wander the vast spaces of the desert in search of pasture for their animals. And by night they gather around a fire, with guitars and drums and plaintive voices.

Tuareg bands like Tinariwen and Terakaft have already found enthusiastic audiences in the West, and won the affection of the likes of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. From the first chord, they summon up a sense of place – empty, diabolically hot but also awe-inspiring. Bombino has that same magical talent. His album Agadez (named after a city on the edge of vast dunes and arid mountains in northern Niger) is remarkably assured and evocative. And his live performances across the U.S. this spring seem to be drawing a new legion of fans.

Bombino spent part of his childhood in exile in Algeria, where he first heard the electric guitar and the records of Jimi Hendrix, and began teaching himself how to play. Scarcely into his teens, he joined a band led by his uncle, which is where he acquired his name – a play on the Italian for “little one.” A second rebellion meant a second spell in exile, in neighboring Burkina Faso, but that’s where he encountered film-maker Ron Wyman, who was entranced by a tape of Bombino’s music. Wyman brought the young Tuareg back to Cambridge Mass. to finish Agadez.

He’s equally accomplished on electric and acoustic. The song Tar Hani (My Love) transports you after about four notes – and serves notice that this is a guitarist who is going to do new things with a Fender. Bombino’s fingers move with electric speed.

The song was recorded in a short documentary by Wyman that captures the spirit of the music and Bombino’s home town. Shot at dusk, the colors are rich, the playing energized after the torpor of the midday heat, and Bombino – backed by drums and a calabash – is consumed by music.

You just want to be there. WATCH:

Tar Hani is about love and separation, and other songs on Agadez are about the loneliness of the desert, and the history of a people long oppressed both by colonial powers and their successors, pushed from one place to another in a never-ending struggle for water and land.

Agadez is certainly not a one-trick album. Beyond Tar Hani, the spine-tingling Ahoulaguine Akaline (“I Greet My Country”) opens the CD.

Tinariwen are from Mali; Bombino is from Niger. Tuaregs in both countries have been long marginalized – they are the Kurds of Africa. But their predicament has spawned a generation of musical brilliance. For now Niger is at peace and Bombino can play in his native land; but in Mali a recent uprising has divided the country in two. The Tuareg are flying their flag in the north, but there will be plenty more songs about hardship and rebellion.