His instrument was banned, his fellow musicians killed – the story of Bombino

Bombino, Müpa, 21.12.2018, 8 pm

He heard the music on a tape for the very first time. The quality wasn’t professional, maybe not even good. However, as long as it finished, filmmaker and producer Ron Wyman was desperate to find this young man. How or where, who cares – he has to find him.

Searching for someone who has asylum is not that easy, but Wyman didn’t give up, and one fine day in Burkina Faso, the man whom he searched for stood in front of him. He was known as Goumour Almoctar, or Omara Moctar, or simply Bombino, and with the age of twenty-nine, he was already a well-known musician in his country. Even if he would have been killed if he had gone back, with his music banned completely. How could it be possible? Wyman listened to Bombino’s story, and from the chaos painted in front of his eyes, something started to have a shape. This should be made to a film, he thought, and those songs should be recorded properly…

The Tuareg

The boy, later known as Bombino, was born in a Tuareg camp, north from the city Agadez in Niger, as member of the Ifoghas tribe. Their caravan was always on the way to find food and water for their animals; the rhythm of their life was determined by the seasons. Going from the North they traded with salt and date, coming back from the South they traded with cereals and grain.

Bombino’s father was a car mechanic, his mother, just like other Tuareg women, taught children and ran the home. Although the boy was sent to schools in Agadez, he always sneaked back home, so his grandmother persuaded his father that he should stay at home. So he was taught by the female members of his family how to speak the Tamashek language, sing songs, write the Tifinagh alphabet, and of the Ashak, the moral codex of the Tuareg. As a little boy, Bombino learned a lot about what courage, generosity, responsibility and endurance are, not knowing that one day he has to prove with his whole way of life how worthy he is for all this…

In the evening, after dinner and milking sheep, camels and goats, people from every tent came together at a common fire where they drank tea, talked about history, recited poems and sang. Bombino watched the star-spotted cover above and the endless desert around them, and he believed it will all stay like this forever.

The first insurrection

In 1990, the Tuareg rose up against the respective governments in Mali and Niger. They didn’t want to take famines, the unstable political situation, the refugee crisis and the general suppression; they wanted autonomy or even a nation-state for their own.

The family flew to Algeria from the bloody combats and retaliation. Bombino was only ten years old. Suddenly, the whole world stood upside-down for him, but it also meant a lot of new impressions in the new country. Together with his cousins, he received a guitar, and soon another one for his own from his uncle Niamey. He listened to Jimi Hendrix and the Dire Straits with his music lover friends and became astonished how naturally these stars handled their guitars.

As soon as he turned fifteen, his father argued with him more and more because of the music, as he didn’t want his son to be an artist. Bombino left home and worked as a shepherd, having nothing with him but his mere guitar, and sometimes he practiced while watching over the animals. He wandered through Algeria and Libya, met a bunch of musicians and then joined a band ran by his master Haja Bebe, a Tuareg musician. He was the one who gave the boy the nickname Bombino, as he was the youngest in the group. When the combats ended in 1997, Bombino returned to Agadez as a professional musician. He played in several bands, recorded a disc, his songs were featured in the radio, and he performed on stage all the time.

The forbidden music

In 2007, his Group Bombino played at a wedding where they were recorded by a filmmaker Hisham Mayet. These songs, alongside with others by Bombino, were published in the Sublime Frequencies series. The record wasn’t even published when a new Tuareg revolution started. This time, Bombino saw things much more clearly that last time when he was only a child. He remembered the nomad life where music played an important role in holding the Tuareg community together, he realized how mighty his voice and his instrument can be. His political songs that called for action and praised Tuareg identity, as well as his live performances, played an important role in the organization of the new insurrection and believed in victory.

Of course, the government also realized what has been happening. They banned the guitar as a symbol of rebellion, although Bombino himself only said:

“I do not see my guitar as a gun but rather as a hammer with which to help build the house of the Tuareg people.”

After his two fellow musicians were captured and executed, he had to flee from the country once again, this time to another neighbouring country, Burkina Faso.

Agadez forever

This is where the story ended when Bombino recounted it to Ron Wyman in 2009. Their joint work, however, has only started at this point. There and then, in the Burkina Faso time, they started to work on the documentary that was later released under the title Agadez: The Music and the Rebellion. Wyman also persuaded Bombino to record those songs that gave the Tuareg so much hope and power in their desperate fight. In Wyman’s home studio in the USA, they created the album Agadez.

In 2010, with the government and the Tuareg agreed on peace, the war officially ended and the guitar ban was annulled. Wyman came back to Africa to finalize the record, and also to include those moments in the documentary when Bombino returns to Agadez. To celebrate the peace, the Sultan gave permission for a huge concert next to the mosque. Thousands of people arrived, everyone carrying their own personal pain, loss and tension, but only until Bombino took his guitar in his hand. The Tuareg, who were made insurgents and warriors by the turbulence of history, now were allowed, finally, to dance, shout, jump, sing, laugh, embrace and cry themselves into peace.