Omara Moctar has led an eventful life to say the least. The guitarist was born in Niger, but spent many years in exile from the war-torn country – his family fled in the early 1990s, fearing for their safety following the Tuareg rebellion. It was during this time, living in Algeria, that the teenage Moctar heard the music of Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits for the first time. He says the sense of freedom he felt listening to their music was the key appeal. “Especially with Jimi,” he says. “His guitar seemed like an extension of his body to me and he was so free in his music. I was a poor refugee without anything, so this sense of freedom pulled me in.” Moctar had also studied traditional Tuareg guitar – a style he describes as the music of the desert, or the soundtrack of the Sahara – and the two influences combined. By the time he returned to Niger in 1997, the teenage Moctar was an accomplished musician, playing with his band Group Bombino.
“For musicians in Niger, really the only way to earn your living is to play at weddings, at baby naming ceremonies, Muslim holidays and other events like this,” he says of his day-to-day life there. “These are the only times that people will spend their money on entertainment. Otherwise the population does not have the means to support artists. But there is this exception, mostly of marriages, where people will do everything they can to pay for musicians to come and perform.” Political turmoil forced Moctar to flee Niger again in 2007, but while he was living in exile in Burkina Faso, he was approached by filmmaker Ron Wyman, who had heard rough cassette recordings of Group Bombino playing at weddings. Wyman convinced Moctar that he should formally record his music, resulting in the wildly successful 2011 album Agadez.
Moctar has now returned to Niger again, and he hopes this time he will be able to stay there for good. “Mostly things are calm and safe here,” he says. “Every now and then there is a problem with terrorists kidnapping someone or other bad things like that, but the population is now peaceful amongst each other and it is not a violent place. God willing, the peace will last for a long time.”
Niger’s political turmoil has made a deep impression on Moctar and his music, though he insists he never writes directly about his own experiences. “My lyrics are usually talking about general ideas, lessons, stories. I am never talking about myself in my songs. Sometimes I will talk about my wife or my friends but never about myself, just the lessons I have learned in my life that I think are important to share with everyone.”
Moctar will be bringing his live show to Sydney Festival, and for the uninitiated, I ask what exactly we can expect. “You can expect that you will have a lot of fun,” he says. “We play a desert rock’n’roll style that is probably unlike anything you have heard live in Australia before. So it will be something new but also familiar.”
As for the future, he says he is working on new songs all the time, and plans to release another album next year. “I hope to record the album in Africa, more precisely in Burkina Faso where there is a big Tuareg community. For me, that would be the best place to record the next album.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN