The great Bombino to headline Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, April 16, 6:15 p.m.
How much: $18-$35
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
Bombino has lived much of his life in exile, but he has found a home on the stage.
The acclaimed Tuareg guitarist and singer-songwriter makes his local debut at Belly Up on Saturday, touring in support of his new album, “Azel.”
Born in Niger as Omara Moctar among the nomadic Tuaregs of the Sahara, at age 10 he and his family were forced into exile by the Tuareg Rebellion. Growing up in Algeria and Libya, he taught himself to play guitar — fueled by traditional local styles as well as Jimi Hendriz and Carlos Santana — and when he returned to his hometown of Agadez the late 1990s, he began life as a professional musician.
After another rebellion in 2007, the Niger government began executing musicians and banned guitars — as protest music like Bombino’s was perceived as sowing dissent. He again went into exile, and his music began making its way around he world, sending Bombino on his unlikely journey to rock stardom.
“I have had many difficult periods in my life, but I must say I am a very lucky man to have this opportunity,” he said via email recently through a translator.
Ten years back, as recordings of his music began circulating around the West, his astounding guitar skills caught the attention of fans and musicians alike. Rock greats Keith Richards and Charlie Watts brought him to the U.S. to record. He then began touring with a Tuareg band. His 2011 debut, “Agadez,” became a global phenomenon and a mainstream hit in the U.S., while a late November show that year at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, webcast via NPR, was a watershed moment.
For many music fans, Bombino provided an introduction to the Tuareg people and their struggle in the universal language of music (he sings in his native Tamasheq). For others, he’s become an ambassador for a West African culture that’s often seen only through the lens of armed conflict.
“I want people in the West to understand, by way of my concerts, that the Tuareg people are a peaceful, hospitable, warm and friendly people,” he said. “So often in the media the Tuareg people are associated with war and rebellion. Sure, there are cases where Tuareg people are involved in conflicts, but this is a tiny minority. I want people to see the whole picture and that the Tuareg culture is a beautiful thing that should be respected and preserved.”
Today, it’s impossible to listen to this Muslim one-time refugee and not think about the talents, traditions and stories of the refugees making their way from Syria into Europe.
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced Bombino’s bluesy 2013 album “Nomad,” and Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors helmed the production of “Azel,” which this week debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes world music chart.
Recorded in Woodstock, New York, “Azel” is named for the small desert town where Bombino’s wife grew up — it also, according to press materials from Partisan Records, means “root” in Tamasheq and is used as slang meaning something like, “That’s my jam!”
The record’s sunny, lilting songs put the guitar in the foreground, with Bombino’s pleasant vocals supporting, but it doesn’t indulge in the ripping solos we’ve come to expect from rock guitar virtuosos. His style is intricate but not showy, building breezy passages on sparkling guitar riffs and rhythms — you hear rock alongside Saharan sounds and some Caribbean rhythms and reggae beats on songs like “Timtar” (Bombino has dubbed the style “Taureggae”). It’s truly “world” music, in that it defies categorization in any strict regional style.
Playing with the likes of Keith Richards and recording with the likes of Auerbach and Longstreth, Bombino said, has only pushed him to cultivate his individual style.
“I think the thing I learned the most from these big artists is confidence,” he said. “To spend time with these guys in the studio and for me to see how interested they were in me and my music, it was a very big boost to my confidence as a musician and as a bandleader. I began to realize that to be a great musician, like these guys, you must simply trust your own instincts and feel the confidence to let your passion direct you in your music.”
Three albums in, he’s still following an utterly original sonic path, not falling in line with trends or genre or aiming to please the West as he’s made inroads into pop music.
“If you begin to think about things like ‘Oh, I should really play like this’ or ‘I should play this type of song,’ already you are not being yourself,” he said. “And if you are a real artist, you should always allow yourself to simply be yourself.”
Longstreth took a hands-off approach on recording “Azel,” songs from which will make up the bulk of Saturday’s concert.
“Dave is a brilliant guy and musician, but I felt this time that it was up to me to direct what would happen in the studio and Dave was there to help me where I needed it, or where we needed an outside opinion,” Bombino said. “Having this confidence allowed us each to play the roles in the studio that we wanted to naturally instead of feeling a pressure to behave in an unnatural way because we were not sure of ourselves.”
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