'Tuareg music doesn’t have any borders and fewer limits than some of the music that you may be used to'
Maeve Hannigan
11:00 18th May 2021

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You know there is something special in an artist when their very success has grown through the Saharan desert via Bluetooth phone swaps and good old word-of-mouth. Or is it maybe the Hendrix skills born out of a handmade guitar from wood and old bicycle wires? 

“I’ve always been a very curious person, even from day one" Niger-born Tuareg guitar wizard Mdou tells us. “So for my first album I was just messing around and I was very curious to know, cause I’d never heard it before, what Tuareg music would sound like using electronic tools.” And so Mdou Moctar’s sound was born. 

His debut album Afrique Victime, released this Friday (21 May) with Matador Records, is a desert rock sanctuary that speaks to victims of colonialism, jealousy, and love; not to mention a grounding thread of nostalgia for Mdou’s country and family. “For me, each track is equal and important, each of them moves me in their own way. I don’t compose lightly, they all have a reason for existing.” Mdou does not shy away from the struggles his country has endured from Western exploitation and colonialism. He points to the French in particular, who profit from Niger’s uranium, whilst 90% of the people in his country are still living without electricity. The track which shares the name of the album, ‘Afrique Victime’ turns on you with this reality: ‘Africa is a victim of so many crimes, If we stay silent it will be the end of us.’ 

“I had very diverse sources of inspiration for this album, it’s a mix of lots of different true feelings such as love, politics, especially rebellion, and it’s things that are happening around me. So for instance the theme of jealousy, I just noticed that it was destroying people’s lives and wasting people’s time in several ways, not just regarding romantic relationships, but also friendships and that it was a real parasitic feeling around us.” 

The music video for ‘Afrique Victime’, filmed in Niamey, Niger's capital, is infectiously freeing and unexpectedly moving. It is a testament to Mdou’s ongoing support for the younger generations of Niger. The energy found in his music relies on an unspoken mutual agreement between the band and the acceptance of the surrounding community - it is the sound of his people. It longs to be equal and asks to be shared, but never to overawe. And what is the sound of Tuareg music? “I feel that it represents where Tuareg people live. So sometimes there may be types of sounds that are inspired by the wind and the desert, or maybe the tempo is inspired by the way camels walk and of course, there’s a strong influence of our traditional music. So when you play Tuareg music, you can hear all of that which is what makes it kind of special.”

However, this boundless journey is not only a reflection of his Nomadic community but Mdou’s complex riffs are sewn through a limitless technique that is not at all unfamiliar to Tuareg music: “Tuareg music doesn’t have any borders and fewer limits than some of the music that you may be used to. Because it is written by people who have never studied music so people are really just playing however they want to. There’s no strong dogma of what you should or shouldn’t do. People tune their guitars however they want to and play however they want to, so I would say there’s a type of freedom that may be unique.” 

You would think it impossible, then, that the raw and experimental essence of Moctar’s vision may inevitably be altered once exposed to different techniques outside of Niger? Since he and his band have shared their music with the Western audience - touring across the USA - Mdou assures that the changing environment does not greet their sound like an unwanted substance but that it is simply part of this evolution of music. “Because we don’t use the same technical gear as you, we don’t do festivals the way you do and we don’t do concerts the same way. It’s different and it’s helped us a lot to be able to listen back to our music using sophisticated technical gear, so I would say there’s been a big evolution.” 

Ultimately, it is clear that Mdou wants to grow with his country and bring the essence of the families and communities in Niger alongside him to wherever he tours. After all, this sound of freedom and unstructured wonder is not found in the regimented western system of music lessons from the age of five, followed by unhealthy competitiveness at music college. Both Mdou and the band, consisting of Ahmoudou Madassane, Souleymane Ibrahim, and Mikey Coltun, call it their ‘do-it-yourself musical ethic’, with skills that have grown out of pure, untouched curiosity. It is truthful and personal, uniting traditional Tuareg music and the legendary desert-blues tones of Abdallah Ag Oumbadagou, with the intensity and hypnotic energy of Van Halen and Black Sabbath. Impromptu but a question entirely necessary to Mdou Moctar’s otherworldly sound: How does it feel to play? 

“When I start to play guitar... I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, but I feel that I stop being the Mdou that I usually am. I think I become quite strange. I don't really recognise myself as being natural anymore and I feel like something is taking over. For instance, this thing happens sometimes where I’m playing and I'll stop recognising the people directly in front of me, even if they are close to me. When I start playing solo I feel like I stop being a natural person. Instead, I feel like even on stage that something comes into me, the atmosphere sort of takes hold of me. But of course, another key element is that it really depends on who’s there and who the audience is, cause that only works if they are activating my energy. If we are both responding to each other, then it really comes alive.”

Afrique Victime arrives 21 May via Matador Records.

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Photo: Press