Bombino’s former status as a refugee has renewed significance in light of recent world events. For Africans hoping to make it to Europe, Agadez marks the northernmost outpost before crossing the expanse of the Sahara. The population of Agadez has swelled to over 118,000 (from about 35,000 in the early 2000s), because of the many refugees from Libya’s civil war, as well as stranded Europe-bound migrants.
“Having experienced the pain of being a refugee myself twice in my life, this issue is of great concern to me,” Bombino said. “My heart bleeds for the people I see on this ‘migrant route.’ I was extremely lucky to survive my experiences with displacement. When I see people in this situation coming through Agadez, I feel a shudder in my bones knowing this person will probably not be so lucky.”
The status of Niger’s Tuaregs has improved somewhat since the end of the second rebellion, at least in terms of social mobility. Yet many of the grievances that led to the insurgency remain unresolved. Resolutely focused on his people, Bombino dreams of launching a musical community center that would provide access to instruments and recording equipment for Tuareg youth. “In the areas where there are Tuareg people, there’s been quite a lot of conflict, especially in the last 10 years or so,” Bombino said, “so my main wish would be for an enduring peace.”
That feeling was shared by the audience at Brooklyn Bowl. Amid the crowd, a group of friends all originally from southeastern Morocco unfurled a flag that represents the Berber-speaking peoples of North Africa, also known as Amazigh or “free people”. After dancing with it held over their heads, they threw it onto the stage as a gift for Bombino, who smiled and nodded his thanks. After the show, Aziz Eikadi, 24, listed the reasons he liked the guitarist, including “the way he expresses our culture to the world, our history, our bravery, our pride.”
While Berber-speaking members of the audience may be a smaller demographic in the U.S., it hasn’t seemed to limit Bombino’s appeal; his three most recent albums have all topped the iTunes World Music Chart. “For us, he transcends language,” Mr. Seligman said. “The singing somehow works in the West, where nobody understands the meaning of what he’s saying, but it works with the music so well. That to me is part of the magic.”
Bombino himself senses this rousing reception from audience. “What makes an impression on me while I’m out touring is just how people are so open to my music,” he said, “how they come out and obviously don’t understand a word of what I’m saying.”
“You can just feel that they’re really enjoying the music and opening their minds and their eyes to it,” he added. “That’s the best feeling.”