Born in a nomad camp, Niger’s Mdou Moctar first came to prominence after the release of his debut album, 2008’s Anar. Its songs were hugely popular throughout the Sahel region of Africa, traded on cell-phones. Thanks to the compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones: Volume 1, Moctar became known outside of Saharan Africa. In 2015, Moctar starred in the movie Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai: Rain the Colour of Blue With a Little Red in It – the story of a young man who rebels against his conservative upbringing to play rock and roll. Tuareg has no word for purple.
2019’s Ilana (The Creator) is Moctar’s fifth album, but his first to feature a full band. It’s surprising he’d never recorded with a band before, as his searing electric guitar is clearly suited to a rock setting. Moctar’s playing evokes a lot of different influences – the desert blues from the Tuareg region of Africa, 1960s acid rock like Jimi Hendrix, as well as the tapping of Eddie Van Halen.
Moctar addresses both politics and spirituality on Ilana (The Creator). The lyrics of the title track translate as “Our heritage is taken by the people of France / Occupying the valley of our ancestors” – Moctar has criticised France’s exploitation of Niger in interviews, noting that France has prospered from Niger’s uranium, while many parts of Niger remain impoverished. Music was a frowned upon occupation for someone with Moctar’s conservative Muslim upbringing, but he’s won over local religious leaders with his songs of respect, honour, and tradition.
Moctar’s main selling point is his scintillating lead guitar. He plays left-handed on a Fender, mixing desert blues and western influences like Prince into a psychedelic stew. Moctar’s guitar shines on the centrepiece song from Ilana, the heavy riffing of ‘Tarhatazed’. It’s more than seven minutes on record, but here’s a 2018 live version that stretches out even further.
Ilana isn’t all epic rock jams – Moctar’s also excels in mellow territory. ‘Anna’ still has a psychedelic flavour, but it’s accompanied by a gentler groove.
In an era where mainstream rock music has often felt predictable and stale, Moctar might just be the guitar hero that you didn’t know you needed.