Mdou Moctar (32) not only had very few options to be a musician; and to become an artist with some recognition beyond his native Niger described at the time as a miracle.
But his latest news is this: he has just released a latest album, Afrique Victime (2021), under the Matador Records label -one of the most relevant independent record labels on the planet, the house of bands such as Pavement or Yo la Tengo- and different specialized media are once again fascinated with its harsh, hard, enveloping sound, which attacks Like a sandstorm where it is difficult to stand. In the western lexicon, the press has labeled him “the Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara.”
But not too many years ago, the musician perhaps faced many of those desert attacks growing up in the village of Abalak, in the Azawagh desert, north of Niger, as part of the nomadic communities known as Tuaregs, and that in their own ways of life and organization also move through Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
In this collective destiny, traditional music appears as a basic component to protect dialects, traditions and experiences. Although with nuances.
“My parents did not have the means to buy me an instrument and they would not have. For them, becoming a musician would mean that I was a criminal, a terrible person who drank beer and took drugs. I never told them that I wanted to play the guitar, I didn’t dare. So I did one “, Moctar assured last year in The Guardian, as a cover letter of a trajectory that in its beginnings had the form of a chimera:” I was from a religious family and music was not welcome, but I was going to listen to local musicians and dreamed of being like them ”.
In Africa, musicians run into almost immediate barriers to take off in their own local scenes, not only reflecting nations shaken by civil wars or still mired in colonialist burdens, but also mired in precarious recording conditions, with few recording studios. acceptable level, labels that have disappeared over the years and talented artists who combine their trade also working in areas ranging from cooking to transportation.
Given this, and instead of launching into the formal career of recording albums or putting on recitals, they prefer to play at weddings, christenings or family events, where they earn more money and many times complete albums emerge by mere chance: someone records the presentation on tape. cassette -very common still in many African countries- and then activates the heads-up that serves to gain some fleeting popularity.
It was partly the origin traced by Mdou Moctar. After earning a name in what can be labeled as “the circuit” of marriages, and singing in Tamasheq – the main Tuareg language -, he caught the attention of a handful of local producers and ended up recording his first professional work in 2008 in Nigeria.
Nigeria is not only the most populous country in Africa. Since the 1960s, it has been one of the places on the continent that best connected with the musical flow of the great Anglo epicenters, delivering its own versions of funk, soul, disco music or rock. Without going any further, Fela Kuti, the greatest figure in African music of all time, was born in Nigeria.
In the case of Moctar, to achieve a more distinctive sound and not to get caught up in the vernacular or rural genres that he had learned as a child, he decided to invent a guitar himself. The materials? All taken from an old bicycle, where the piece of wood served as a neck and body, and the brake did the function of the ropes.
His debut did not have a great commercial impact, but it served to pigeonhole him into a genre (assaouf or desert blues, as the desert-accent rock that prevails in that area is called) and to detonate the same effect as the shows raised in marriages: word of mouth.
Through pen drives and mobile phone data cards, some of his songs were heard throughout much of North Africa and one of them (Tahoultine) came to appear on Music from Saharan Cellphones, compiled by the Portland, Oregon-based Sahel Sounds label specializing in electric music played from the Sahara.
For its director, Christopher Kirkley, it became almost an obsession to record the Nigerian in better conditions and to materialize the richness of his music in larger productions that required more time and whose language embraced greater variations.
When they finally got together, Kirkley started with the basics: he gave him a left-handed electric guitar, knowing that the instrumentalist did not own one. In fact, Moctar didn’t even know they existed. From there, they materialized a relationship that already has six titles, all under a diverse geography that ranges from acoustic simplicity to a combustion of more aggressive styles, but with the clear axis of pairing African instrumentation with guitars whose echo is referred to the songbook. English speaker. The nomadic Sahara hand in hand with Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Prince, whom he has listed as his creative compasses.
Even in 2015 both performed as a rock opera a Tuareg adaptation of the film Purple rain of Prince. Where the original version portrays a Minneapolis boy who tries to succeed in music despite a difficult environment, in the play with an African protagonist the plot focuses on a talented young man who wants to be a star despite the strict religious beliefs of his fathers.
As for the sound that characterizes Moctar, there are two fundamental instruments: n’goni, a resonance box made with giant pumpkins, which has between 4 and 10 strings and whose sharp and bright timbre places it as the ancestor of the banjo; and the calabash, also built from a pumpkin, that is much larger and drier, which when struck gives a harder vibration.
For decades, musicians on the western side of Africa amplified their music through megaphones, old speakers or outdated radios, adding an unexpected touch of distortion to the pieces they created.
When the time came to add some simple electric guitar riffs or distortion pedals, creating the so-called Desert blues, a musical architecture that simulated a tribal caravan moving through the endless plains burst in, with as much force to endure the journey as self-absorption to be alert. to the details, like a trance where the horizon seems to never end. A kind of psychedelic crossing the Atlantic back, where the hallucinogenic vertigo is much greater than in the most standardized cities.
And that is the mark that he leaves in his wake Afrique Victime, the piece that best summarizes the artistic spirit of the singer-songwriter, abundant in vocalizations that seem like great community sermons, metallic sounds that break the songs like lightning in the middle of a torrential rain and that, of course, serve as a precise backdrop for lyrics that describe relationships love affairs, women’s rights not yet resolved and abuses by the great colonial powers.
In a recent interview, Mdou Moctar pointed out that the album’s title was by no means a coincidence. Africa will never stop being a victim, be it of external contempt or internal chaos. But Moctar is there to cry out for that hopeless duality in one of the most vibrant albums so far this year.