Lions of the Desert: The Sahara’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Renaissance

How a mud-brick outpost in West Africa created guitar-fueled revolution. 

In 2014, the Pentagon announced plans to build a drone base in the middle of the Sahara to bolster its surveillance capabilities in West Africa. The site: an ancient marketplace town called Agadez in the nation of Niger. Over the past decade, West Africa has become a hotbed for jihadist groups, including Boko Haram and Al Qaeda. Known as the gateway to the Sahara, Agadez is the final stopping point before West Africa gives way to one of the biggest terrorist havens in the world.

Agadez isn’t necessarily a dream assignment for the U.S. military personnel and government contractors who will soon be arriving there. It’s a ramshackle town in one of the poorest countries on Earth, accessible only by long, badly maintained roads, many of them riddled with landmines left over from past military conflicts. The city’s population is heavily composed of ethnic Tuaregs, a fiercely independent nomadic people with a long history of armed rebellion. But what it lacks in infrastructure and security, the next American outpost in Africa makes up for with something completely unexpected: a legendary indie rock scene.

A blend of ’60s-era rock ’n’ roll and the musical traditions of the Saharan nomad, Tuareg guitar music—or desert blues, as it’s often called—is fluid, energetic, and raw. “It’s like a snake eating itself,” says Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who, like the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and members of TV on the Radio, has developed an intense fascination with desert blues. “So much pop music is verse-chorus-verse, and this isn’t. Just when you think it’s not going to change, it changes right under your nose.” Meanwhile, for the people of the Sahara—especially the Tuareg—desert blues and politics are fully intertwined.

Since the early 1960s, they have been locked in an often bloody struggle against a succession of postcolonial governments. And increasingly, music has become one of the most effective tools of their struggle. “During the revolutions, the guitar became a way of telling truth to power,” says Bombino, the spiritual figurehead of Tuareg guitar music, whose chart-topping 2013 album, Nomad, was produced by Auerbach in a Nashville studio, and whose next U.S. tour kicks off this month. “So this is a powerful weapon, but for me it’s a weapon of peace.”

When Omara “Bombino” Moctar was 10 years old, he and his family fled their home in a Tuareg encampment near Agadez. The year was 1990, and a pan-national Tuareg guerrilla campaign was in full swing, triggering a brutal response from the Niger government that left hundreds of civilians dead. While living with relatives in Algeria, Bombino happened upon a guitar and some videotapes of Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits, and he taught himself to play.

By 2007, Bombino had been back in Niger for nearly a decade, living and working in Agadez, where he’d helped establish its music scene against a sepia backdrop of camel caravans and mud-brick dwellings. That year a dispute over mineral rights ignited yet another rebellion. This time, as the guerrillas drove into battle, the music of Bombino could be heard blasting from their tape decks.

Before long, the Tuareg were banned from playing guitar altogether. And when rumors spread that two Agadez musicians had been executed by government soldiers, panic ensued. “I heard they were killed because they had become entertainers for the rebels,” Bombino says. “But I also heard they were killed because they were musicians. I didn’t want to take the risk, so I fled.”

After a fragile peace agreement was signed in 2009, Bombino re-emerged a local folk hero. And with the war over, foreign interest in Tuareg guitar music went global. His success, meanwhile, has inspired a surge of young Tuareg guitarists in Agadez. “Everyone wants to be a star; that’s kind of the dream there,” says Christopher Kirkley, a Portland, Oregon, filmmaker who recently produced a Tuareg remake of the Prince movie “Purple Rain.” (Because there is no word for purple in the native language Tamasheq, the film’s title translates into En­glish as “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It.”) The film stars an up-and-coming Tuareg guitarist named MdouMoctar as the motorcycle-riding musician seeking fame in the “city where guitars are king.” It’s got everything: an epic guitar battle with a rival, a pious Muslim father who burns his son’s guitar to save his soul, and a budding romance in the desert.

For all the success of the town’s music, Agadez’s future remains uncertain. As foreign money and personnel begin flooding in, the musicians of Agadez, most of whom support themselves by playing local weddings, may find their careers bolstered by both a renewed sense of security and a more affluent Western audience. But not everybody is optimistic. “No one can control the desert,” Bombino says. “That is why the terrorists like it there. Violence in Africa—there is always a business behind it.”

Photos by Photographed by Ron Wyman / Zero Gravity Films