Guitarist Bombino went from herding goats for a nomadic tribe in Niger to performing African desert blues songs about his people to the world — even though guitars were outlawed symbols of rebellion in the eyes of Niger's government.
"When I was young, there was so much violence and danger in Niger [and it] was even harder [to pursue music]," the 33-year-old husband and father (who appears Saturday at Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival) says through an interpreter. "In my youth, I was more bold and not thinking as much about the dangers."
Bombino was born Omara Moctar and raised in an encampment. His people, called the Tuareg (rebels in Arabic) because they resisted Islam and colonialism, have for centuries been warriors and traders. Because they oppose borders, governments disfavor them.
"We hold our traditions very close because they are critical for our identity," he said. "Our clothes, our jewelry, our customs, our music — all of this is very important to preserve in modern times, when there is one culture of technology and capitalism that is spreading across the world. We must keep one foot in our traditions and one foot in the modern world in order to survive."
Niger's government treated the Tuareg as a lesser class, which led to a rebellion. Some fought and died, while others picked up recently introduced guitars to spread the creed.
Many were exiled. Bombino's family went north to Algeria, where he borrowed a guitar and taught himself to play by watching videos of greats like Jimi Hendrix.
During a brief peace in the 1990s, Bombino and his family returned to Niger, where he joined the new Tuareg political party.
"The situation for the Tuareg in Niger is something that all Tuareg people understand, even when they are young," he said. "As a teenager I understood the politics already."
By his late teens, Bombino was performing at community gatherings and political rallies. Peacetime did not last, and another rebellion began in 2007. The government outlawed guitars. Two of Bombino's musicians were killed, and he fled south to Burkina Faso.
There, a filmmaker who had heard his tape recordings sought him out and produced 2011's "Agadez." The debut reached No. 1 on the iTunes World Chart. April's "Nomad," recorded and produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, fared even better.
"I think that people understand our music because it is so connected to rock music and blues music," he says.
Bombino and his family again live in Niger during a time of peace. But his music's message is unchanged.
"For me, it is always firstly about love and spreading joy and comfort," he says. "I hope that I convey peace, joy and the beauty of the Tuareg culture."Bombino
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival
Where: Panhandle Stage
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday