SUB-SAHARAN HOMESICK BLUESIt’s a one of those universal truths: whether you’re cruising the cactus-studded Pearblossom Highway, snapping your fingers to the dulcet rockabilly-laments of Heavy Trash’s latest, or camper-waltzing through the majestic Rockies while the score to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange blares from the rear speakers, no road trip is complete without the appropriate musical accompaniment and it’s all the better when that soundtrack chooses you. The highway of human consciousness certainly had an auditory detour in mind for documentary filmmaker Ron Wyman when he visited Africa back in 2007. Introduced to Wyman via his Berber guides, five wobbly, homespun guitar jams would become the accidental score to his next storytelling saga.
“I was working on a film about Tuareg nomads and wound up going over to Africa with an NGO that a good friend had been involved with,” explains Wyman. “I spent a month driving around this spectacular desert, 100 miles from the nearest road, building a narrative about them. They had one homemade cassette with a handful of recordings on it by a guitarist called Bombino. That tape was all that we listened to for two weeks straight and I never got tired of it. It was the perfect soundtrack to that incredibly magnificent region.”
A longtime fan of rock and blues music, Wyman was hooked. He knew he had to find a way to contact Bombino, who is also known as Omara Moctar or Goumar Almoctar, and to capture the enigmatic guitar maestro’s exotic artistry on film. Unfortunately, this was during a period of terrible social and political upheaval for Bombino’s homeland of Niger. Known as The Guitarists to the government of then-President Mamadou Tandja, Bombino and his fellow Berber bards were condemned as cultural propagandists for the rebelling Tuaregs. Following the murders of two of his bandmates, Bombino fled to Burkina Faso in order to escape the growing threat of violence. For Bombino, this episode was tragically reminiscent of his family’s flight to Algeria during the first Tamasheq rebellion seventeen years earlier.
“It took me the course of a year to track him down,” Wyman recounts. “By the time I got to Niger, he had left the country because he was being harassed by the military. When I finally caught up to him, he was at a home that belonged to some of his fellow Tuareg ex-pats. We hit it off immediately. He was sweet and shy. He had been driving a taxi between gigs and didn’t have a lot of confidence about his abilities. He started playing some music at the house and I saw him transform into this amazing, confident, beautiful entertainer. When I heard that music got a chill, and by the time I was done filming that song I realized, ‘Wow! He is more extraordinary than I thought!’ ”
Casanova of the Sahel
Bombino’s hypnotic manipulation of the high-and-airy West African guitar style parlays hardship into harmony. Multi-textured forays into the Afro-rock genre, which call upon progressive references to Clapton, Hendrix and Page, challenge any notion of geographic or spiritual isolation. Like Malian world music sensations Tinariwen, Bombino’s timeless voice echoes the ongoing struggles of his people (who call themselves as the Kel Tamasheq) whilst celebrating an inner strength and a heritage that is as boundless as the dunes.
“Omara (Bombino) brings in whole new elements to the tribal songs of these traditional stewards of the Sahara. There’s 100 years of history behind his music, but it was the way in incorporates modern guitar licks that blew me away,” Wyman explains. “Up in the Northern regions of Niger, the people are very poor, but everybody has clamshell cell phones with a couple of megabytes of stored music. They walk up and down the street playing these tinny reproductions and the music spreads by way of phone, cassette and word-of-mouth. They love to hear their own stories as reflected by their own musicians, so guys like Bombino and the other Tuareg musicians have a cult-like following. You could see people’s eyes light up when you mentioned Bombino. He represents something to the youth: a new breed, a new generation. That’s how he got the name. They called him, ‘the bambino, the young one.’ ”
Founder of ZeroGravity Films, Wyman has produced and directed numerous documentaries about global issues and the performing arts. 16 years of experience with CNN’s political division tempered by freelance work with media rogues like Michael Moore and Bill Maher has given Wyman a powerful directorial skill set that balances intellect with romanticism. Focusing his camera obscura upon Bombino’s provocative yet utterly appealing creations, he has successfully revealed the nomadic troubadour to a global audiences with the release of his film, Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion, in 2011. Sensible enough to capitalize on an all-too-rare opportunity, Wyman and Bombino also crafted a complimentary soundtrack CD by the same name, filled with the vivid biopic’s mystical, psychedelic, desert-rock.
“Every now then, you find yourself in the presence of someone and you know you’ve got something special. Bombino is like this. His guitars aren’t the best, but he’s got these long, adept fingers and a voice that really strikes you every time you hear it!”
Wyman continues. “I was convinced that in addition to a film we’d have to make a CD. That’s how Agadez came about. Agadez was my first CD production, although I have done several docs on musicians, including Tunde Jegede and Babatunde Olatunji. I am a musician myself, so music plays a big role in all of my work.”
Calmer conditions in Niger have facilitated this Prince-in-Exile’s return, but Bombino’s work is never done. An ambassador for change, the now 32-year-old desert bluesman continues to encourage his Tuareg tribesmen to push back against a rising tide of pro-extremist sentiment spilling over from neighbouring nations. Embracing his role as an influential figure on the international stage, Bombino (a boy who grew up admiring Western guitar gods) looks forward to touring the world and, one day, his own country.
“Even with an enthusiastic new government in place, dealing with the bureaucracy of Niger is a real headache,” Wyman acknowledges. “So, one night we rented generator and construction lights and headed 15 miles out into bush to film a live Bombino concert. We were totally amazed that so many people came out to see him perform in the middle of nowhere. That night he showed us his true soul. He played that acoustic guitar like Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker, but in his own incomparable style.”
Tapped for distribution by international music label Cumbancha Records, Agadez (so named for Bombino’s birthplace) received widespread critical acclaim. The soundtrack-album debuted at the top of the iTunes World Chart in April of 2011 and the website subsequently dubbed him “Breakthrough World Music Artist of 2011.”
“Touring with Bombino, I’ve seen him accepting his celebrity status in a subconscious way. Not in an ego sense, but taking responsibility and becoming tremendously more confident. It’s in his Tuareg nature to want to run against the grain. They don’t want to be told how to worship or that their women should cover faces. Mainstream Tuareg don’t want anything to do with that, they completely reject the horrible things that have been happening in Chad and Mali. The Tuareg are trying to separate themselves from al-Qaeda’s influence and Bombino has been paying attention to their desire to secure Niger’s borders. His words have a tremendous impact, he dreams of touring to promote unity within Niger. Bombino definitely has his head screwed on right. As a Tuareg, he is very centred and self-dependant. The world could learn a lot from them.”
Relocated to exotic Nashville to embark on the recording of a new CD, Wyman confirms that Bombino plans to release his second full-length album in the spring of 2013.
“I believe that Agadez will be Bombino’s signature CD, having a certain authenticity from being recorded in Agadez,” Wyman observes. “The new CD is an evolution: it will really put him on the map. He’s really stepped up to the plate with this new material, still maintaining Tuareg themes, but exploring his own sound and taking it to the next level. He is a rare talent: you can identify his unique and beautiful style by hearing a few seconds. It is hard to know the literal themes he is working on, as all his songs are sung in Tamashaq, but if the rough mixes are any indication of what’s to come, I can’t wait to hear the rest. He’s really going for it and doing lot more with his technique. For me, it reaffirms what an incredible talent he is.”
By Christine Leonard