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Bombino Speaks! Afropop Interview with Omara “Bombino” Moctar

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Omara Moctar, known as Bombino, has been making serious waves since the release of his latest album NomadThe Tuareg guitarist produced the record with Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach and released it in the US on Nonesuch Records, following it all up with a slew of stateside concerts including the Outside Lands festival and the Celebrate Brooklyn concert series. Afropop’s senior editor Banning Eyre caught up with Bombino after his recent concert at Brooklyn Bowl, where the Tuareg rocker had a lot to say about the beauty of improvisatory performance and the recent turmoil in West Africa.

Banning Eyre: I want to ask about the experience of this new album. Now it’s finished, many people have heard it. What’s the reaction to Bombino’s new sound?

Omara Moctar:  The reaction for us is largely relief because, as you know, when you work to make people listen you always fear that maybe it won’t please the people, maybe it won’t work. But after all, the results that we have experienced in the concert halls and festivals show us that people enjoy the work that we did. So the good atmosphere in the venues also gives us strength to continue what we do, because the Bombino group loves traveling from venue to venue. So when we see that people really love what we do, that makes us want to travel even more and do more of the work that we know how to do… with the guitar, with the music, blending traditions…Yes.

B.E.: Is there something that you learned during your experience here that changed your method of playing, performing on stage, working with your equipment, with your guitar? What did you learn from this experience?

O.M.:  Many, many things. I also found other things that I didn’t understand on the guitar, that’s for sure. Because, you know, on the guitar, on the little neck, there are so many things…On the six strings there are many melodies, many notes to use. It is enough to relax and search, and improve. It’s the strings and the hands and the heart, it’s that connection that makes the sound that comes from the guitar. And when, sometimes, you manage to make a note that comes out and touches the heart, you can feel it yourself, a note that comes from you without having played it for people first. I don’t know if you understand…I believe its one way for me to explain it for you.

B.E.: Cool. I understand. Are there one or two tracks here that you especially like the sound, that you are especially proud of the results of the recording itself?

O.M.:  Yes, especially “Imuhar.” It’s really… it pleases me, it touches me, it more than exceeded my expectations. It is so much better than I hoped. That tune, everyone played on it, and on that album everyone has their preference, but mine is “Imuhar.”

B.E.: You knew right away.

O.M.:  Yes.

B.E.: I really love “Her Tenere“. It really touches me. The melody is so deep! Did you have the chance to return to Africa, to Niger during the year?

O.M.:  Yes. Last year we took a break from January 17th to around May. We took a long break, which was good. But since them, each time we do a month, or a month and a half, I return home, because I have a family: my wife, my little daughter…They need to see me too from time to time.

B.E.: Of course! What’s the atmosphere there now? Is it okay, or is it a little tough?

O.M.:  Yeah, the past few weeks it’s been hard. Because, several weeks ago there was an attack in Agadez.

B.E.: Yeah, I heard about that.

O.M.:  That scared everyone. Personally, that shocked me to bottom of my heart. It’s a shame, because we don’t need more problems. If there’s something you want to seek out, there are many ways to search for it or something… Because people can go in the best way, the way with the fewest worries, no one will stop you. If you want to contribute to something in Agadez, at least the people could try to bring back the profitable professions for everyone. The tourist industry: Everyone earns his daily bread. You know, the whole region of Agadez depends on the tourist industry, because, at a given moment, people developed their economy within this domain. I myself grew up within this domain. Later, I worked in this domain as a cook, as a musician, as a chauffeur, as a guide. I saw my people in that time, they were happy! Because everyone worked. The town was okay because when you bump into your friends, they tell you, “Oh, I went on a trip guiding tourists,” two weeks, or three weeks. So he earns his bread and it’s okay. Why not? I think we can bring back those kind of times, but, for me, attacks or other things don’t go in the right direction, don’t go in a direction that is profitable for everyone. War has never been profitable for everyone, it only wastes the country.

Thankfully, it calmed down, because people were able to control the situation. Because people there never want Agadez to become like Timbuktu or Kidal in Mali. But people calmed down, and as the Prime Minister of Niger is a Tuareg, the situation was quickly resolved, because he knows how to resolve it. All it took was a dialogue among the people, locally, because someone who is bad, no one wants them. If there is someone bad there, one can’t locate them without the local people. But with the local people one can simply discuss and arrive at a solution.

I think, you know, all these things, when you look at it, when you look at Niger where we live, or when you look at Mali, when you look at Algeria, Libya… I’ve been to all these places because I have a lot of cousins in Libya, in Algeria, in Mali, and I have other passports. But with all that, I say okay, years have passed, some fifty years since independence, a bit more, but I think there is always a solution. I think even I, although I’m young, I see the solution, it’s not even that hard. That is, okay, no one gave us a land. Okay, we don’t have a Tuareg state, we didn’t get lucky there. But we did get lucky that there are people who speak Tuareg, there are people who know each other. So, we will connect the people of Agadez, the people of Timbuktu, of Tamanrasset, Djenne or Sabha. At least we can do exchanges, a group that comes from Timbuktu or Tamanrasset…Exchanges can unite our people. That’s what we need. Not that everyone makes their own war! And I believe that if we manage to communicate in this way, even if we have borders, the borders won’t stop us from sharing solutions. I think that by communicating we can get out of the situation that we are in now. Because, for me personally, it hurts me to see Mali in this condition.

B.E.: It has a very difficult future, there are many things to resolve. What can musicians do? What can you do as a musician to resolve these problems? Have you written new songs for example?

O.M.:  No, for that, no, I haven’t written for that. But I think we can do many things. For one, making music can help people to forget many things that have happened. I’ve been reflecting on that. But for the moment, I don’t know how we can do that, but I’m sure that  all the groups that are there, in the north of Mali, can do many things. With music we can report many things, especially about peace.

B.E.: Last week, I saw the group Tartit…

O.M.:  Yes.

B.E.: As part of the Caravan of Peace tour, which will be coming to New York very soon. They are going to play at Lincoln Center. I talked with Fatoumata Diawara,  who I’ve known for a while. It was a pleasure, and it was very powerful to see Tuareg, Sauri, Bambara musicians, everyone all together on stage with a message of unity and peace. It was very moving.

O.M.:  It’s important. Because, since I’ve gotten to know Mali, with all it’s great musicians, with the great musical culture it has, for me personally I consider Mali as a great musical resource because there are great, great musical artists who are famous from there. I think it’s really a shame that Mali finds itself in this situation. Well, my opinion, from what I see, is that they can resolve many things. To make music, no one is going to hunt you down. If everyone gets together, to return to the north, to try to talk with the north, to see what’s going on, I think that no one who is born in Timbuktu, or Kidal, or Tessalit will want to hurt anyone who is born in Gao, or even Bamako, or…They speak the same language! There are Tuareg who speak Bambara, that’s for sure! How can we explain something like that? It’s not the route of Islamic history? That is the fault of the directors, the African politicians, it’s their fault. Because there is a lot of Malian history that no one talks about. There were airplanes that landed, and nobody talked about it. Why did these planes land in Mali?

B.E.: With drugs?

O.M.:  With drugs, with we don’t even know what!

B.E.: That’s all hidden, people don’t talk about that.

O.M.:  Yeah, people don’t talk about it. People talk about MUJAO and MNLA but before them, there were things that happened, airplanes that landed, without anyone being aware of it.

B.E.: Okay, returning to you and your music, what’s the future? Are you planning a new album? Something different? An experiment? A journey? What’s the plan for now?

O.M.: The plan now, if one can say that…[Laughs]

B.E.: If one can say that…[Laughs]

O.M.:  We have an idea now, in fact, to get together somewhere in Africa, the whole group. We are thinking about Ougadougou [Burkina Faso], to get together down there for a while, about a month or a month and a half.

B.E.: You’ve lived there before, right?

O.M.:  Yes. And I had the idea that the whole band could stay down there for a while, to work and work, and make the third album there.

B.E.: With musicians from there? Another group?

O.M.:  No groups from there, but maybe some musicians from here. Musicians, friends from here, we will invite them there. So, that’s the project for the moment!

B.E.: Sounds good! This album is really good, I really like it. The sound is really good. But there is a quality to your other albums with songs that are longer, with more liberty for the guitar to explore, while this is more of a balance. Maybe the next album will be something more free?

O.M.:  Yeah. That was part of the reason for the idea to go to Africa, actually. To make some long, free things, and work on that. That’s why we want to be together with friends for a month and a half, just playing, playing, playing; that could produce something. For me, it is enough to just work, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and see what there is to do. And when you do that, it is certain that you will find new things.

B.E.: It’s different every time. You improvise a lot, right, with the guitar?

O.M.:  Yes, with the guitar. It’s the only way to see how you can develop your music; at least for me, in any case, to develop my thoughts. Because, through working, through rehearsing… Because my group isn’t about locking everything down, the music is firstly about freedom. But when you do rehearsals, there are things that you can arrange. But at the same time, you still need to be free, you don’t say it’s arranged, because there is an exchange with the audience, and it’s sometimes important to play a song a bit longer, to make the audience dance. The short, short songs don’t really make…well they make people dance, but not really think about the music.

B.E.: And each time you play a song on the stage, it’s different. It depends on the situation, the ambiance, and the audience, right?

O.M.:  Yes.

B.E.: It’s the same song, but the way you play the guitar, the solos, it’s improvisation. This is my impression, is that right?

O.M.:  Yeah, that’s right. For me, to go play on stage, it’s also an opportunity to practice. As soon as I have a new song together we play it before we forget it. That’s what we do, and it works.

B.E.: That’s freedom, beautiful. That’s the character of the music. When the artist becomes inspired, it inspires the audience as well. With this new album, I know the future isn’t totally organized yet, but have you started writing songs for that, or are you going to use past songs?

O.M.:  Yeah, both. But also, we already have a few things arranged that we are trying to finish. For me, every day that comes, we try to do something because we never know where life is taking us. Each day that comes, each morning that I wake up, it is important for me to think about work, because when you wake up, you bring out your guitar, in the early morning, making your tea, you will also want to do something new. There are times when you will want to return. It’s not easy, it’s true, but we try anyways. With a little break, like that, it works. There are small things, either a song or a melody that you play. Yes, we have some things that we think could become the next album.

B.E.: When will the next break be? Do you have shows all summer?

O.M.:  The next break will be from 19th of August, just two weeks, 10 days even. It starts up again September 3rd, and ends 19 September, it’s not long.

B.E.: And where will you go during the break?

O.M.:  To Niger.

B.E.: Oh yeah? For 10 days?

O.M.:  Yeah.

B.E.: It’s better than nothing!

O.M.:  [Laughs] Yeah, it’s better than nothing!

B.E.: Okay, thank you! Is there anything that you want to add?

O.M.: Sure, what I want to add is about peace. The people in Niger, or near Libya, or in Mali, I think that it’s important that people don’t have a wrong impression of these people. These are people who… History is there, history has discovered these people, so today we’re not going to start saying that these people have become terrorists. No! History is there! Europe knows the Tuareg people, Americans also know the Tuareg well. So there is no reason to ignore what’s going on and pretend that nothing is going on. I think that what’s happened in Mali, people have taken the lesson of that I think. That’s the only message I want to say.

B.E.: Thank you! And good luck and have a great tour!

O.M.:  Thank you!

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