The West

Bombino. Picture: Becky Felstead/The West Australian

Omara "Bombino" Moctar clenches a fist over his heart and simply says "oui" when asked if he is an "ishoumar".

While English is not among the four languages he speaks fluently - French, Arabic, Tamasheq and Haoussa - there is no need for a translation.

Moctar is proudly an ishoumar, a once derogatory term loosely derived from the French word for unemployed now attached to the rebel songs played by the Tuareg warrior musicians of North Africa.

The Niamey, Niger-based guitar slinger professionally known as Bombino brought his hypnotic desert blues-rock to the Southbound festival in Busselton last weekend.

The Santana of the Sahara delivered lightning fast riffs, played with slender fingers purpose-built for racing up and down guitar strings, dressed in traditional lilac robes and wearing cool dark sunglasses.

Many songs were from his third album, Nomad, recorded in producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys' Nashville studio.

Last year the album made its debut on top of both the US Billboard world music and iTunes world charts, and made plenty of year-end lists as one of 2013's most exciting albums.

Like fellow Tuareg musicians Tinariwen from neighbouring Mali, the 34-year-old's road to global acclaim literally passed through a war zone - the nomadic Tuareg people have fought for survival and self- determination for generations.

Speaking after his sizzling set at Southbound with manager Eric Herman acting as translator, Moctar sums up his childhood in a word: "Difficult".

"He grew up very poor and at the age of about 10 or 11 was exiled with his family during the first Tuareg rebellion (1990) to Algeria," Herman explains.

"His passion for the guitar was able to carry him through the difficult periods. He said 'When you're in love with the guitar it's a dangerous thing over there for many reasons - political reasons but also professional. It's not an easy way to earn a living. It's rare that someone is able to do that.'"

Moctar's biggest early influences were Tinariwen and Malian singer Ali Farka Toure - "the heavy hitters of the desert" - before he discovered the big stars of the West during his time in exile. His cousins played old VHS tapes of Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits and Bombino "just fell deeper and deeper in love" with the guitar. He began to teach himself how to imitate the rebel songs.

After the military regime in Niger was replaced with a democratic government in the early 90s, Moctar's family returned to the northern city of Agadez.

He joined the Tuareg political party where he met master guitarist Haja Bebe. Soon after he joined Bebe's band, earning the nickname of Bombino, a variation on "bambino", Italian for "little child", as he was by far the youngest in the group.

Choosing to be a professional musician did not exactly go down well with the patriarch of his big Muslim family.

"His father was disapproving in the early stages," Herman says, translating Moctar's quiet yet passionate answer. "I don't think any father wants his son to get mixed up in that lifestyle. There's alcohol, drugs and those temptations in there that can afflict a musician and it's very difficult to earn a living and sustain a living."

The success of Nomad, which has further increased demand for Bombino after his first internationally released album Agadez (2011), has surely changed his father's mind.

"Now he sees the virtue in it," both manager and musician laugh, "now that he's building nice homes in Niamey."

While the Niger government is currently at peace with the Tuareg people, there is still a long way to go. This ishoumar with a cause will play his part.

"I do not see my guitar as a gun," Moctar told online store artistxite last year, "but rather as a hammer with which to help build the house of the Tuareg people."

The trailblazing musician, who counts not only his heroes Tinariwen but the Rolling Stones and Angelina Jolie among his fans, is thankful for his success. He hopes others don't face the same difficulty "following the guitar".

"It's a very satisfying feeling to see the success of (Nomad) and that everything is connecting in his career," Herman translates.

The music, as always, is the biggest reward. On stage at Southbound last Saturday, Bombino seemed to lose himself in the psychedelic guitar riffs.

"If you don't lose yourself," he says via Herman, "you're not really expressing yourself fully."

The West Australian

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