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 land mines 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 Mdou Moc­tar 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.” ■

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