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Bombino's Rough, Sweet Desert Blues Goes West

Boosted by a Black Key, West African guitarist crosses Hendrix with Tuareg traditionalism

Bombino
Torkil Adsersen/AFP/Getty Images
June 23, 2014 11:40 AM ET

Welcome to Young Guns, our series exploring the most notable guitarists from the next generation of six-string legends. For more interviews with the guitarists inspiring us right now, click here.

WHO: A 34-year-old guitarist and singer from Niger, in West Africa, inspired equally by traditional Tuareg music and Jimi Hendrix, Omara "Bombino" Moctar stands out even in a field as fertile as "desert blues," the catchall term for deliciously rough guitar music from the Sahara. Each of his three albums – the first with Group Bombino, the others solo-billed – is a hard-driving gem. Last year’s Nomad, his major-label debut on Warner Bros.-owned Nonesuch, was produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach.

50 Best Albums of 2013: Bombino's 'Nomad'

PURE AND NATURAL: Both vocally and on the six-string, Bombino sounds sweeter than other desert blues artists he's often linked to, such as Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. "I don't like to use a lot of effects or things like that, like a lot of guitarists," he says. "I like the pure, almost natural sound. It doesn't matter much which guitar I am playing. Now I play a Cort guitar that I really love. But usually I just plug it into the Fender amp and the sound that comes out is my sound."

CLASSIC (DESERT) ROCK: Hendrix inspired Bombino to first pick up the guitar. "I first discovered his music when I was a child in exile with family in Algeria," he recalls. "I would spend the days with my friends and cousins watching videos of rock musicians like Jimi, Dire Straits, and Santana. For me the freedom that Jimi expressed through his guitar sent me to another world, where I was also free."

KEEPING THE PEACE: The Tuareg people, a minority in the African desert region, have frequently been embroiled in conflict there, but Bombino has emerged as a musical hero in his region to young people of all backgrounds. He played a triumphant set at the 2011 Festival in the Desert, the Tuareg-heavy annual fête in Mali, to a huge international crowd. "For me, the festival is a symbol of tolerance, freedom, diversity, love, and fraternity," he says. "I am Tuareg, but when I see what is happening in the North of Mali now" – in May, armed rebels seized much of the Kidal region – "it really upsets me. I want all people of the Sahel to simply live in peace and cooperation with each other. We are facing the same problems when we look at things globally instead of locally. So we should be working for common interests. The festival represents that to me."

KEY OPENS DOORS: Bombino had already made two internationally distributed albums – recorded live or in small studios – for indie labels when Dan Auerbach contacted his manager. "A friend sent him some videos of me on YouTube," says Bombino. "He invited us to record with him at his studio in Nashville. It was a really incredible experience – we had never been in a real recording studio, and we are there with Dan Auerbach? It was surreal for us."

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