Tuareg guitar
Agadez, Niger

Photo: Erwan Rogard

Photo: Erwan Rogard

Tuareg guitar has exploded across the international cultural landscape in the less than two decades since the pyrotechnics of these guitar slingers, often veterans from the front lines of the Tuareg's intermittent uprisings, first captured the imagination of music fans worldwide. Proclaimed variously as “the Sultan of Shred” (New York Times), the “World’s Best Guitarist” (Noisey), and “utterly, utterly fantastic” (BBC World Service), the Niger-born guitarist Bombino is arguably the leading exponent of this rhythmic, trance-like, and sonically captivating sound.

Bombino is Tuareg—a nomadic Muslim people who have lived in the Sahara for centuries, descendants of the Berbers of North Africa. Sometimes called the “blue people” for the bright indigo veils worn by men, Tuaregs have a rich heritage but a troubled recent history. Starting in the 1970s, droughts and strife in Tuareg strongholds Mali and Niger led to armed rebellions and life in exile. Tuareg men in refugee camps discovered the guitar and started playing melodies once traditionally sung by women, adding lyrics that spoke to Tuareg identity and rights. In the 1990s, Tuareg bands like Tinariwen started to gain international attention with a sound that combined driving Arabic rhythms, outspoken songwriting, and spare but stinging guitar playing that sounded like a melding of John Lee Hooker, Dire Straits, and Malian great Ali Farka Touré. 

Bombino was born Goumour Almoctar in 1980 in a Tuareg encampment in Niger. He discovered the guitar at age 10 when his family fled to Algeria during an uprising—relatives brought two guitars back from the rebellion’s front lines. Political and family turmoil led to many moves, from Niger and Libya to Algeria and Burkina Faso. Although his family was not enthusiastic about a life in music, Bombino taught himself guitar. “Honestly I cannot really say how I was able to teach myself,” he says. “I simply sat with a guitar and did little experiments with it until I figured something out and then I would repeat it over and over until I did not have to think about it, it was in my fingers. Usually I would try to learn the songs that I loved, many from Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, and Abdallah Oumbadougou.” He also watched videos of Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Bob Marley, and incorporated their sound into his own playing. Bombino perfected his chops while working as a herder in the Libyan desert, using the long hours spent watching animals to practice. 

In Niger, a teenage Bombino befriended guitarist Haja Bebe, who provided the budding musician early gigs playing political rallies as well as a stage name derived from the Italian word for “little child,” a fitting nickname for the band’s youngest and smallest member. When Bombino’s first album became a hit on local radio in Niger, his music career took off. He still found time for a surprising excursion: serving as actress Angelina Jolie’s guide for a weeklong visit to the Niger desert. By 2011, however, Bombino was recording and touring internationally to far-reaching acclaim. In 2019, his album Deran was nominated for a Grammy® for Best World Music Album, making Bombino the first artist from Niger to be nominated for a Grammy®.

Despite achieving global stardom, Bombino remains devoted to singing about Tuareg life. Following after the trailblazing Tuareg guitarists who brought this music out from the front lines and refugee camps, he continues to combine traditional Berber sounds with a rock and roll swagger. Bombino harnesses this prodigious talent to share a message of peace and, as he eloquently explains, “to encourage pride in our people for all the beauty our culture possesses.”