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Mdou Moctar
courtesy of Matador

Mdou Moctar: the shred star of the Sahara

On the precipice of international success and new album Afrique Victime, we meet the world’s most uniquely thrilling guitarist at home in Niger, building wells and advocating anti-imperialism

The life of Mdou Moctar seems brushed by fate. His story is one enormous unspooling ball of yarn, with multiple stop-in-your-tracks details embroidered in the fabric.

Mdou was born sometime around the mid-80s in Abalak, a town in the southwest of Niger. He is one of the Tuareg, a historically nomadic people found across the Saharan belt, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the Nigerien population. In Tuareg culture, music is at the bedrock of the community, a tool of liberation, and their deliverance from struggle. But Mdou’s religious parents resisted his want to creatively explore. Undeterred, he assembled his first guitar by hand out of bicycle wires and discarded wood, then began strumming away on his left side.

He went on to break new ground, fusing traditional Tuareg songcraft with drum machines and auto-tune that he heard popularised in neighbouring Nigeria. By the early 2010s, rough recordings of his songs were like a phantom force breezing across the Sahara, hopping from cellphone to cellphone via Bluetooth and memory cards. This piqued the ear of one travelling American blogger and musicologist, Chris Kirkley. Convinced he was hearing a 1-in-100 million talent, Kirkley spent years tracking him down, biking through the desert with a left-handed, jet-black guitar intended for Mdou strapped to his back. The mission was a success.

An armful of albums poured out from Mdou between 2013 and 2015, captured and released worldwide by Kirkley’s label Sahel Sounds. Before long there was a film too, a semi-homage to Purple Rain which marked the first feature-length in history shot entirely in the Tuareg language of Tamasheq. Intended by Kirkley to tease out the charismatic, virtuoso similarities between Mdou and Prince, there was only one snag: the word ‘Purple’ does not exist in Tamasheq.

And so 2015’s musical drama Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai – translated to Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red In It – was released. The movie was a profile-expanding cult hit, turning heads and filling the next five years of Mdou’s calendar with non-stop international tour dates. Lisa Coleman, who played with Prince throughout his imperial phase in the 1980s, says the comparison is wholly merited.

Taken together, this supersized lore seems to slot Mahamadou Souleymane (Mdou is an abbreviated nickname, and Moctar or Mokhtar meaning ‘The Chosen’ in Arabic) in a bracket alongside mythical West African musicians like the Father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti.

Except Mdou Moctar isn’t a myth. He is a man living and working in the city of Tahoua today, and music is far from the only thing on his plate. “Every time I’ve managed to do an album, I build a well,” Mdou says down the phone. “Access to water is an ongoing problem in Niger, so at the moment I’m travelling around villages and trying to assist that for people. I want to see how women are living locally, to facilitate improvements in healthcare and shift to becoming a father figure in my family.”

Though Mdou possesses generational talent, his reality is strikingly different from someone of Prince or Fela Kuti’s stature. Kuti, whose mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a trailblazing advocate for women’s rights and whose sons Femi and Seun form a legacy-upholding dynasty, needed to operate from a guarded compound in Lagos due to threats of execution across the 1980s. Prince’s Paisley Park was also a fortress in its own right. Mdou wields significant sway among aspiring musicians in Tahoua, Agadez, and beyond, but he walks the street among his people. You can hire him to serenade your wedding or rent his car for a small fee, if you like.

The transcendence takes place on record, blasting through earthly concerns and committing the listener to a place beyond. Sometimes galloping across a rollicking backbeat, other times spacing out over a ballad, the sound is psychoactive, heartfelt, and implicitly sunfried. His band keeps pace adroitly, but it’s Mdou’s spellbinding guitarwork that truly steals the show. With no real frame of reference for rock ‘n roll of the West prior to his 30s, his technique has only become more daring since absorbing clips of new-old favourites like Eddie Van Halen. Whether finger-tapping on the fret or vibrating his thumb and index finger on the body, each solo hits like a spurting solar flare, molten fuzz cresting into the air.

2019’s Ilana: The Creator brought a wider audience to Mdou, but 2021’s Afrique Victime is likely to propel him even further. The album, out via kingmaking indie label Matador at the end of May, is a scorching riposte to French and American imperialism, pushing back on the plunder of natural resources in Niger while asserting the beauty of desert life. In between racking up column inches in American broadstreets and guesting alongside Lil Uzi Vert and Sherelle on Off-White’s Imaginary TV, Mdou’s ability to promote his material the way it was intended is on hold. “I miss touring but I can’t access music very much at the moment,” he states plainly. “I’ve had to adapt.”

Connecting with Mdou and the band is not short of adaptations either. Any trip during lockdown is out of the question, let alone a journey from London to Agadez that would, by estimation, require three flights and a 28-hour bus ride. In late February, a contested election result briefly tipped Niger into unrest. To defuse tension (or stifle dissent), the country’s internet was disabled for a fortnight, pushing my first run of interviews back. When I finally do link with Mdou’s long-standing guitarist, Ahmoudou Madassane, and comparatively young drummer, Souleymane Ibrahim, they are observing Ramadan, so the calls must take place late into the evening after fasting has concluded.

Even then, signal remains a hit-and-hope. In one call with Ahmoudou and Souleymane, translator Penny Campbell and I manage to lose the line seven times. Separately, when chatting with Mdou, successive muffled interruptions are accounted for at the end of the conversion with a laugh: Mdou’s two-year-old son kept trying to grab the phone out of his hand.

I begin with Mdou’s bassist Mikey Coltun, whose fluffy bouffant and American accent mark him as the band’s obvious outlier. Already acquainted with his father’s West African and avant-garde records, in the late 00s Mikey was smitten by Sublime Frequencies’ foundational Guitars From Agadez series, and has been playing as part of Malian and Nigerien groups for over a decade. Having facilitated Mdou’s first trip to the USA in 2017 as a booker, manager, driver, and all-around booster, Mikey was calmly informed that he would be on bass duties for the gigs as well. Mikey upped the ante: after the American tour was done, he would come to Niger and live as a Tuareg.

“I love being thrown into an unusual situation,” Mikey laughs, speaking from upstate New York. “The Tuareg lifestyle is very trusting, and everyone is so close. There’s always a bunch of people together, legs entwined or laying on the floor pretty much on top of one another. There’s no, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to my room and do some stuff.’ That doesn’t exist. Privacy is regarded very differently as an entity. The Tuareg use moments of solitude to reflect. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Mikey estimates that he played over 500 shows in three years with Mdou before the pandemic struck. If that number raises an eyebrow, consider that the four-piece would often clear a handful of local weddings per day, and it begins to level out. “I remember the first night that I arrived in Agadez, we drove straight out to a wedding in the bush, really in the middle of nowhere. We had to carry our amps and equipment across some water before setting up, playing, and disassembling. I came up in the D.C. punk scene and so this DIY way of operating felt instantly natural. You know, what better way to get familiar with the community than just going for it?”

“I feel very personally invested in the support of my comrades. All the issues and barriers they face, I’ve been through them too. I want to be able to share the benefits of travelling to the West and aid their development“ – Ahmoudou Madassane

Genuine kinship fuels the group on the road. Fatigue is seemingly no issue; a week spent walking through Libya as a teenager was ample endurance training, Mdou chuckles. Ahmoudou uses available downtime to visit “places of importance to the history of music,” fondly recalling a trip to Detroit’s Motown Museum during a break from recording at Jack White’s Third Man Studios. For Souleymane, who honed his sense of rhythm as a boy by playing on a calabash gourd, Mdou went from someone to look up to, to someone reaching out with a compliment and offer to jam, to someone taking him outside of Niger’s borders for the very first time. Plainly, the drummer says, “I consider Mdou to be my brother”.

The band takes pride in being ambassadors for Tuareg culture. They perform in traditional tagelmust, either covering their faces or letting the veil flow down their shoulders, set against robes in alternating shades of plum, cream, and the regionally-favoured indigo. Mdou typically props up the merch table selling Tuareg jewellery to raise money for building a girls’ school back home. Ahmoudou’s younger sister Fatou leads the brilliant Les Filles de Illighadad too, a groundbreaking female-fronted band existing within a strictly patriarchal culture. Ahmoudou assists as on-off manager and guitarist when required, and encouraged a pre-teen Fatou to follow her musical passion in the first place, though guitar practice could only take place outside the house and away from prying eyes.

“I feel very personally invested in the support of my comrades,” Ahmoudou explains. “All the issues and barriers they face, I’ve been through them too. I want to be able to share the benefits of travelling to the West and aid their development – to provide them with money, musical gear, and knowledge. From day one I have felt deeply moved to do this.”

For a band whose acclaim outside the West African wedding circuit has been bolstered by white-hot shred-a-thons, any impediment to travel is a crimp on exposure and success. Even before the pandemic struck, Mikey sighs, “procuring visas has always been such a pain in the ass”. A handful of shows in England across 2017 and 2018 were cancelled at the last minute due to increasingly stringent, racist entry policies set in motion by Theresa May’s administration, leading the band to leave the UK out of 2019 plans entirely. “To get a UK visa, you have to drop it off in France for two weeks – and that means you’re travelling without a passport. So do you hang around in France, losing two weeks of shows, for a maybe?

Touring is off the cards until late 2021 at the earliest, but a recent stream of three performances in Niamey showed what’s being missed and acted as a reminder of how concerts used to function without modern accoutrements. Mdou and co set up their equipment after dark in a sandy courtyard with just a truck for the generator, floodlights for visibility, and deckchairs for what they presumed would be a sparse audience. Hundreds showed up.

The band are in total control, Mikey’s shapeshifting groove following Mdou and Ahmoudou’s dovetailing riffs as Souleyman clobbers the drums with a cigarette dangling from his lips. They are evidently relishing the moment. At one stage, a woman breaks forward to dance in the reflected moonlight. Mdou hot-steps in her direction with a Prince-like pout and lightness of being, before tiptoeing back for a hummingbird-speed solo. “I’ve come to understand through the years that the crowd really is my energy source,” Mdou tells me. “The audience gives me courage to go places and hit notes I usually can’t. What happens live is unreproducible.”

“We’ve done shows where it’s to an older, whiter, ‘world music’ crowd,” Mikey muses, stressing the term with exaggerated air quotes, “and it sucks for everyone. Maybe the money is good, but we’ve always wanted to stay away from that box in the record store. With Ilana and Afrique Victime, we were listening to a lot of Black Sabbath and ZZ Top, so that’s really the sound and feeling Mdou wants to achieve: clean but raw.”

This desire to bracket what Mdou does in Western terms cuts both ways, though. A quick scan of Google results for Mdou Moctar shows “Hendrix of the Sahara” habitually built into every article’s SEO. That is a tag also foisted on Vieux Farka Touré, son of assouf (so-called ‘desert blues’) pioneer Ali Farka Touré, as well as another popular regional musician, Bombino. All credit Jimi’s sky-kissing vivacity with some degree of inspiration, but the term is conflicted – a lazy way to make Westerners nod along. “We’re really trying to push back on that now,” states Mikey. “Van Halen of the Desert?”, I offer. A grin flashes. “Mdou would love that.”

In the milieu of contemporary Tuareg music there are similarities and variances. Some artists, like Kel Assouf, play heavier. Some, like Songhoy Blues, are more in line with the groove and tone of 60s blues rock. The recordings of Mdou’s icon Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou, who passed away in early 2020, hew closer to threadbare folk. Most storied of all are Tinariwen, a veteran collective who have remained deeply in touch with their people’s pockmarked history of rebellion and second-class treatment. Even with the international success of Tinariwen, Bombino, Mdou Moctar, and others, you aren’t likely to find any trace of Tuareg music on Nigerien state television. The guitars they wield may as well be an AK47 to some, even if the music pleads peace and societal improvement.

Mdou initially rejected political themes in his lyrics, instead seeking to make his music appealing to young city-dwelling Tuareg. Afrique Victime changes that. The production, steered by Mikey, is dry and powerful, with licks arriving like thunderbolts and treated vocals that feel as if they’re being transmitted through a heat haze in a fever dream. Across the album Mdou channels Pan-African solidarity, invoking people around him to reject jealousy and embrace faith, while painting a broadly romantic picture of Saharan living.

That is, until the album’s expressive, exhilarating title track. “Afrique Victime” is the most direct song Mdou Moctar has ever committed to tape, a fearsome full-band stampede. Mdou castigates the lingering colonial powers for encouraging instability, decries the ill treatment of Nelson Mandela and repeats the refrain (in French): “Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent it will be the end of us / My brothers and sisters, tell me why this is happening?

I broach the topic with Mdou and the words burst forth like a signature solo: “I’ve always hated the French system of governance. I’m not insulting the French people, but the way the government treats us as if we are not even human beings is unbearable,” he says. “Their companies have extracted all the uranium and gold in Niger but help none of our problems. I’ve seen it since I was a small child. It’s modern slavery, racism, and colonialism combined. Even here in Niger, there’s a separation between the darker and lighter-skinned Tuareg people.

“The darkest skinned people are the least powerful minority, and I make the point of sharing my privilege with them – in concrete terms, that is the money I have access to. But if 90 per cent of the population doesn’t have access to electricity, how can we possibly live good lives in these conditions?”

Mdou’s voice begins to rise. “I’m not calling anyone to provoke war, but (on ‘Afrique Victime’) I am calling the whole world to stand up and revolt against the conditions we face. We don’t have the technology here in Niger to manufacture weapons, so how are they entering the country? Why are other nations storing tools of war on our land? France, the US, NATO – they’re all complicit. Why are they here? Why?” By this point, a translation is barely necessary. The intensity has reached a crescendo. “The US can kill people from the sky now, but pilots can’t eliminate 4,000 terrorists living in our desert? How can the influence of 52 countries not resolve that issue? How!” The line goes quiet for a moment. “I think it is because they’re playing with us. They’re playing with my people.”

“The darkest skinned people are the least powerful minority, and I make the point of sharing my privilege with them – in concrete terms, that is the money I have access to” – Mdou Moctar

If that strikes you as the inspiration oratory of a leader-in-waiting, you’re not the only one. However, the door to politics at a national level is closed to Mdou Moctar, as it is to all Tuaregs for the time being. History weighs too heavy to even consider it. Afrique Victime stands instead as Mdou’s direct call-to-action. It would be no surprise to look back in years to come and see it as the first of many.

As well as unwinding centuries of impoverishment and subjugation, there are other vital issues Mdou is tasking himself with day-to-day. “My other key priority is women’s rights,” he says. “Better hospitals are a must. We still have people giving birth under trees in the desert, which is very dangerous. In the longer term, every woman should have the opportunity to go to school, to become doctors themselves or have a career in music. Equal opportunity is the next step to modern life in my opinion.” That school he had been funding remains under construction, but several wells have been poisoned and destroyed as a result of the recent civic unrest, so Mdou concedes he needs to focus energy on that first.

Whenever international touring resumes, the audiences that await Mdou and the band will be more acutely aware of his values than before, and inevitably a great deal larger too. Matador are placing Afrique Victime as a 2021 priority alongside the likes of Julien Baker and Queens of the Stone Age, a sign of Mdou’s boundless potential, increasingly unassailable catalogue, and the ways he can parlay his growing influence into substantive social change.

Until then, Mdou Moctar will use this relative solitude as a time to reflect. It’s in his blood, after all. “My wish,” he concludes, “is that the new generation of musicians will continue to flourish and develop. I’m advising artists who are younger than me to stay grounded in our unique Tuareg style even as they modernise. I have to say that I’m extremely happy my message is being spread around the world while I’m still alive. For so long, my music was considered a bit of a joke at home. I never considered myself to have the potential to become an international artist. You know, still today in my head I see myself as a beginner. And I think that’ll be the case forever.”

Afrique Victime will be released May 21 on Matador Records