The guitar: a humble six-stringed instrument to some, but to others, a powerful symbol of revolutionary change or anti-government feeling. It was outlawed in Agadez, northern Niger, during the second Tuareg rebellion of 2007, forcing guitar sensation Omara "Bombino"' Moctar to lay down his weapon and flee to neighbouring Burkina Faso. But after three years of conflict, he eventually returned to Agadez and resumed his quest for musical enlightenment. Having played WOMAD and toured the world this summer with his guitar strapped firmly to his back, Bombino is also the focus of documentary film Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion and is now a global superstar in his own right.
Music and protest have always been synonymous, of course. From the slave spirituals to the time-honoured canon of American folk, where protagonists like Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie used their guitars to mobilise political fervour. Although "protest songs" in their purest form may these days rank disappointingly low on the western mainstream pop agenda, music will always be a potent source of rabble-rousing.
Taking his cue from Tamasheq (Tuareg) godfathers Tinariwen - the "first wave" of musicians who formed in the Libyan refugee camps of the late Seventies - Bombino is at the helm of a "third wave" of Tuareg guitar-led political protest. Born in Tidene, a Tuareg encampment on the outskirts of Agadez in 1980, Bombino first picked up a guitar when he was 12 years old. "My family was exiled to Algeria during the first Tuareg rebellion in Niger and my brothers came back from fighting one day with two guitars and left them in our house," he recalls. "I started to play and even though I didn't know how, I loved the sound. I spent the majority of my time playing until the guitar was taken from me - since then it has always been my dream to have my own."
His messages of unity, strength and determination bring some solace to a community ripped apart by decades of violence.Thanks largely to Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequencies - who have now released three volumes of their Guitars From Agadez series - the intoxicating sound of this sweeping Saharan vista has reached a wider audience. Using cassette recorders, video cameras and microphones, Hisham Mayet and Alan Bishop dish up raw, lo-fi musical exports from all over the world, traditional folk and pop songs unsullied by the hand of European production. In doing so they have been credited with transforming prevailing perceptions about world music.
Hisham Mayet found himself in Agadez just months prior to the uprising of 2007. He had been visiting the city on and off since 2004, documenting the music of Group Inerane, among others. "To say the Agadez scene is incestuous is an understatement," says Mayet. "Most of the groups play together at weddings and parties. You have Koudede Maman, Group Inerane with Bibi Ahmed, Bombino, Hasso, Gountou, a new group called Kader and a few others. Some members of Tinariwen will come and play gigs in Agadez as well; they are all friends and share equipment and resources."
He was hot on the heels of a new 28-year-old guitar shredding virtuoso - Bombino - who was at that time performing with his band Group Bombino and after watching him play at a wedding - one of the primary outlets for Tuareg musicians - in 2009 Mayet took it upon himself to release their first LP. "I suppose the music attracted me initially, but as the second rebellion heated up, one had to consider the political message that the music represents," he says. "This is the most direct way that the Tuareg community can communicate and Bombino represents a fresh face for the struggle of his people and region; charismatic, young, he is also kind, humble and very much loved by everyone he meets. "
Side A of Group Bombino: Guitars from Agadez Vol.2 is fixed in the tradition of acoustic "desert blues", spearheaded by the likes of Ali Farka Touré and Abdallah Oumbadogou, but side B dives head first into the groove-filled waters of psychedelia. Bombino's debut solo LP Agadez, which was produced by filmmaker Ron Wyman and released on Cumbancha records in April this year, topped the iTunes World Music Chart and seizes heavily upon these elements of psychedelic rock. Stirring up an incendiary mix of noisy guitar freak-outs and leisurely romantic ballads, from the soaring electric blues of "I Greet My Country" to the heady twang of "Tar Hani" it is an album entrenched in poignant, life-affirming sentiment and is the ultimate embodiment of liberation through music.
Bombino sees himself as an educator, first and foremost: "I want the world to discover the music of Agadez and to explain our culture, life and our problems to anyone who will listen." His work is a powerful reminder of the unwavering power of song.