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 and 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.
Moctar’s guitar 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. Growing up in a religious region that forbade the guitar, Moctar self-taught himself in secret, making his heroics even more impressive.
I’ve skipped Moctar’s early albums on this page for now – I like him best with a full band, where his guitar chops shine on searing psychedelic rockers.
Mdou Moctar Album Reviews
2008 and 2014, not rated
Moctar’s debut album was recorded in 2008, but only initially saw release via file sharing of sub-Saharan African cellphones. It eventually enjoyed a wider release in 2014. It features autotuned vocals and drum machine loops, different from the grittier sound that Moctar’s pursued more recently.
2013, not rated
Live performances, recorded in Niger. A mix of electric and acoustic tracks.
Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai
2015, not rated
The soundtrack to the movie Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it. About Moctar’s rise to fame in the city of Agadez, featuring guitars, motorcycles, and cellphones.
On Sousoume Tamachek, Moctar revisits his musical roots. The songs on this record were written to play to his friends at desert picnics, where he would play guitar while they drank tea and sang. Moctar is the only musician to appear on these recordings, meaning that it lacks the scintillating electric guitar epics that are my favourite facet of his oeuvre.
Instead, these songs are worthy, but unexciting. The record opens with a stripped-down version of ‘Anar’ – a more processed version was his breakthrough song back in 2008. According to his Bandcamp page, ‘Nikali Talit’ is a love ballad while ‘Ilmouloud’ is religious praise.
If you appreciate Mdou Moctar as an African guitar hero, Sousoume Tamachek may not be the place to start.
Ilana (The Creator)
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 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 and Eddie Van Halen into a psychedelic stew. Moctar’s guitar shines on the centrepiece song from Ilana, the heavy riffing of ‘Tarhatazed’. Ilana isn’t all epic rock jams – Moctar 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.
It’s a tough time for Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar, as Niger’s wracked by civil unrest and the Covid pandemic. He’s unable to play live due to the threat of Jihadist group Boko Haram, but this new album provides a career summary, taking in both the acoustic music of his early recording years and the desert blues-rock of his more recent rock. Moctar described Afrique Victime to The Skinny as “early Van Halen meets Black Flag meets Black Uhuru”.
Despite the diversity, the main attraction is Moctar’s searing lead guitar. The opener and single ‘Chismiten’ is a great teaser for the record, showcasing the raw studio sound and Moctar’s bluesy riffing. There are other strong rockers – ‘Taliat’ and the brief psychedelic guitar of ‘Untitled’ – but the centrepiece is the title track. Moctar’s work has generally stayed clear of politics, but the closing title track is a clear political statement. “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?“
The acoustic songs are pretty – ‘Tala Tannam’ is a love song that translates as “your tears”, while closer ‘Bismillah Atagah’ is lovely. Moctar’s great even when he’s not coaxing wild blues out of his Stratocaster.
I’m not a huge fan of blues-based music, but Moctar’s edgy desert blues are always fascinating.
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