Bombino may be one of the most virtuoso blues guitarists to come out of the Tuareg region of Niger in West Africa, but his name derives from a different continent all together: it’s based on the word ‘bambino,’ the Italian word for ‘baby.’
“It was the nickname given to me when I was a teenager playing in Haja Bebe’s band in Agadez,” Bombino explains. “His band was the best in the region and I was half the age of the rest of the musicians. This is why they called me bambino; I was the group’s baby. It’s funny, because one of the best audiences for me outside of Niger is in Italy, so there must be a connection there!”
Before ending up in the region’s best band as a teen, Bombino first picked up the guitar at age 10, when his family was living in exile in Algeria due the Tuareg Rebellion throughout the early 90s. Being away from home during this early period in his creative development cemented his focus on themes of empowerment and hope for the Tuareg community.
“Tuareg music stresses solidarity of our people, preservation of our culture, and also suffering, and these are things that were very relevant for me, even as a child at the time,” he says. “When you are away from home, there is a greater importance on practicing culture, preserving culture, so that it does not vanish.”
Bombino first garnered international attention with 2011’s Algadez, an album named after his hometown that brims with soaring blues guitar and his distinctively warm, raspy vocals. This record caught the ear of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who teamed up with Bombino to produce the guitarist’s next album, Nomad, notable for its slick production and psychedelic bent.
The guitarist then explored a new direction entirely, partnering with David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors to produce 2016’s Azel, a unique piece of work that explores a hybrid genre Bombino invented with his band called tuareggae.
“Tuareggae is exactly as it sounds – a blend of Tuareg traditional music and reggae,” he explains. “It makes me feel good and want to dance, so we started naturally flowing into some reggae grooves on stage.”
This potent pairing of musical traditions has led to his most innovative work yet on Azel, from languid, breezy songs like ‘Iwaranagh (We Must)’ to toe-tapping numbers like ‘Timtar (Memories).’
He’s currently at work on a new album, which will be produced by his manager and band. “The last two albums had big producers, which was fantastic and exciting,” he says, “but for this new one we wanted to keep it in the family and do something more direct and pure.”
Bombino sings exclusively in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language spoken along with its sister languages of Tamajaq and Tamahaq by approximately 1.2 million people across the most arid swath of West Africa. Singing in his native language is an essential element to the role he sees himself playing as a Tuareg musician in the international spotlight.
“It gives me the most freedom,” he says, “But more important than that for me is to continue to speak and sing in this language in front of the world. I am an artist responsible for protecting the Tamasheq culture, and our language is an essential part of that.”
Even so, he values starting a dialogue with his music, and focuses on making English and French translations of his work available – both in his song names on Spotify and the intros of his official music videos.
“If I am just singing in my language and there is no opportunity for someone who speaks another language to understand what I’m saying, then there is no communication,” he says. “For those who are interested, I want them to be able to understand all the words in my songs.”
This desire to sustain a dialogue spills over into Bombino’s excitement for his debut China tour this month, for which he’ll be visiting five cities around the mainland in one whirlwind week.
“China is a country that has always been mysterious to me, as I have not had an opportunity to learn very much about it,” he says. “I look forward to seeing a new lifestyle and culture, one that I have never been exposed to. I am excited to talk to people there, share experiences and have a real exchange.”
Shanghai: Dec 10, 7.45pm, RMB180-380. Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall, see event listing.
Beijing: Dec 12, 8pm, RMB120 presale, RMB140 door. Yugong Yishan, see event listing.
Shenzhen: Dec 14, 8.30pm, RMB80 presale, RMB100 door. B10, see event listing.
Guangzhou: Dec 15, 8pm, RMB80preale, RMB100 door. 191 Space, see event listing.