The more famous Bombino becomes, the more sharply that fame contrasts the modest personality of Nigerien guitarist Omara Moctar. But that's working within the premise that Moctar and Bombino are one and the same—that the line between person and global music star is permanently blurred. It is, of course, even if it doesn't always feel that way to the man himself.
"I feel comfortable with myself, whatever you wish to call me," Moctar says in an email interview with CityBeat. "I am a rather shy and quiet person offstage, but when I am on stage all of this melts away, and I feel like a different person, like another spirit has come into my body through the guitar. This is why I feel like when I am offstage I am Omara and when I am on stage I am Bombino."
It's the latter who will take the stage at Belly Up Tavern next week as part of a tour schedule behind his brand new album Azel, a 10-track collection of elegant guitar work that debuted atop the iTunes World Music Chart earlier this month and has received glowing reviews from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Spin, among others.
Moctar was born in 1980 in Agadez, a key market town in northern Niger and one of the urban hubs for the nomadic Tuareg people, principal inhabitants of the Sahara Desert. Moctar is Tuareg, and he first started to play guitar while he was in exile in Algeria with his family during the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s.
"I had older cousins there that had a guitar and they would play it," he says. "I fell in love with the guitar...and became obsessed with learning to play it."
Moctar did just that by listening to the political music of his Tuareg generation and watching videos of famous Western guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. He studied under Tuareg guitar virtuoso Haja Bebe, joined Bebe's band and then eventually started his own band and began working as a professional musician. By 2009, when tastemaking Portland label Sublime Frequencies released a compilation of performances called Grupo Bombino: Guitars from Agadez, Vol. 2, Moctar's music was ready for a breakthrough in the world outside Niger. His 2013 album Nomad did exactly that, carrying Bombino and his crisp, undulating guitar sound across the planet.
It helped, of course, that Nomad was produced by Dan Auerbach, the frontman of a little shoestring blues-rock band called The Black Keys. The album needed a push, and Auerbach grabs headlines; mission accomplished. But when it came time to record a follow-up, Moctar's longtime manager, Kevin Herman, went in a different direction, connecting Bombino with Dave Longstreth, the omnivorous musical mind behind avant-pop band the Dirty Projectors. Together, the group recorded Azel over several days at pastoral Applehead Studio in Woodstock, New York.
"I knew at the time of recording it that it was a special opportunity," Moctar says. "I understood that Dave was a big and influential figure in music and that working with him would let my music be heard by many more people."
Longstreth's proven appreciation for the sound of Saharan music made him an unsurprisingly snug fit with Bombino and his band. When appropriate, Longstreth steered with a gentle hand, allowing the guitarist to do what he does best. ("His playing is effortless, endless," Longstreth has written about Moctar.) At the same time, Azel is profoundly influenced by its producer and his proclivity for complex, beautiful harmonies.
Bombino plays April 20 at Belly Up Tavern
"Harmonies are something very foreign to Tuareg music," Moctar says. "Early in the sessions Dave had the idea to try some harmonies on one song. I think it was 'Akhar Zaman,' and we ended up spending a lot of time perfecting them and doing more of them on other songs. At first it sounded strange to me but once I could hear the harmonies he had in his head I realized the beauty of the idea. In the end it was worth it because we have an interesting innovation on Tuareg music and at the same time Dave got to put his signature on this album."
Indeed, the blended vocals on "Akhar Zaman" pair with Moctar's prickly guitar work for the album's catchiest song. And Longstreth's harmonic influence is perhaps most obvious on "Tamaditine Taranham," a roiling love song with an offbeat chorus that wouldnít sound out of place on a Dirty Projectors album.
Some of the album's finest moments come when it unplugs. "Igmayagh Dum" is a tender acoustic love song with a low-key vibe; you can imagine Bombino playing and singing it around a campfire. "Inat Ninhay / Jaguar" is a typically slow-burning, stretched-out number that gives Bombino a chance to show off its new "Tuareggae" style, a fusion of Jamaican guitar chop and Saharan desert blues. And "Naqqim Dagh Timshar" is a droning propulsive lament so evocative, you can practically hear the pain in Moctar's vocals even if you can't understand his words.
Lyrically, Azel is pockmarked with sadness: about being away from home, about times gone by, about "the pain of love," Moctar says, and about the slow ebb of traditional Tuareg culture. But sonically, the music is generally upbeat, and Moctar sings in the language of Tamasheq, so these themes may not be so obvious to Western audiences.
Which is OK with Moctar. Some of those themes may not be universal. But the feeling behind the music is, and that can be enough.
"[Joy] is the feeling that I get from music and I want everyone to have this experience," he says. "When you feel the joy of music you cannot do harm to other people. You cannot feel bad about even big, serious problems. This is the gift that music has for the world, and I wish to share that gift, quite simply."