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Guitarist Bombino brings his ‘desert blues’ to the Midwest

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Bombino is set to perform on Sept. 10 on the Mershon stage as part of the Next@Wex series.  Credit: Courtesy of Tom Leentjes

Bombino is set to perform on Sept. 10 on the Mershon stage as part of the Next@Wex series.
Credit: Courtesy of Tom Leentjes

Aspiring musicians often make financial sacrifices to follow their dreams. It’s a profession, especially in the information age, that isn’t particularly lucrative. But for Nigerian guitarist Bombino, his instrument has given liberation from poverty and ethnic conflict.

Bombino, whose real name is Omara Moctar, has gained international recognition, and is set to perform at the Wexner Center for Arts on Wednesday as part of the Next@Wex series. The series aims to bring young “music innovators” to its stages at Ohio State.

Bombino, 34, grew up to the northeast of Agadez, Niger, and is part of the regional Tuarag ethnic group. After a drought, Bombino and his family fled to Algeria while he was still a child. Political disputes eventually led to a Tuareg uprising and songs became a popular medium to protest for the rights of Tuaregs. Guitars were readily available and Bombino began to teach himself to play.

He practiced often, and years later found work as a backing musician in Libya.

Inspired by such idols as Dire Straits, Tinariwen and Santana, Bombino said he feels lucky to be able to entertain others all over the world while simultaneously being able to feed his family. 

“From the first time I picked up a guitar, I felt a sense of freedom that inspired me to be a musician,” Bombino said in a translated email from his native language, which is a mix of Middle Eastern dialects. “If I could have an impact on music in the way that these great artists did, and in Tinariwen’s case still do, then I will be truly happy for the rest of my life.” Tinariwen is also composed of Touregs, and their playing of popular music brought them persecution when militant Islamists took gained a foothold in northern Mali in 2012.

Bombino’s guitar prowess is widely recognized, and he was even called the “new guitar hero” by Rolling Stone.

“I would watch videos of great rock ‘n’ roll stars, and me and my cousins would try to imitate them,” Bombino wrote.

Rolling Stone has described Bombino’s style as “rough, sweet desert blues,” a brand that brought him a natural collaboration in the U.S.

His 2013 album “Nomad” was produced by Dan Auerbach, who is one half of The Black Keys and a native of Akron, Ohio. The effort made the list of NPR Music’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2013.

His performance is set to be on Mershon Stage’s Black Box, meaning the stage’s curtain will be drawn and another performance stage will be built upon the main. The ropes and bars are all visible, making viewers feel like they are backstage with the artist in an enclosed, private show, said Jennifer Wray, the marketing and media assistant at the Wexner Center.

“It makes for a more intimate experience,” she said.

Wray said Bombino has a way of connecting audiences to musical legends, such as Santana and Jimi Hendrix, while also bringing the tradition of “desert blues,” a popular form of guitar music from the Sahara, to Columbus, which will feel even more personal in the Black Box setting.

“For me, the best part of performing is feeling a connection of joy and love with the audience. There is no better feeling in the world than this,” Bombino said. 

The performance is set for 8 p.m. on the Mershon Stage. Tickets are $15 for students and members. General public tickets are $18 and can be purchased online, over the phone at 614-292-3535 or in person from the Wexner Center ticket desk.

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