Mdou Moctar: one of the world’s most exciting and important rock bands

Mdou Moctar: one of the world’s most exciting and important rock bands

During Pablo Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’, in which he illustrated a series of sombre portraits inspired by poverty and personal loss, his close friend and poet Jaime Sabartés wrote that the iconic painter was a firm believer in great art being “the son of sadness and suffering”.

However, great art is also born from resilience in the face of adversity. One such example comes from the Tuareg, a semi-nomadic people from a region of the Sahara that spans from Mali through to Libya. In their constant fight for liberation, recognition, and basic civil rights, the Tuareg pioneered tishoumaren: a blistering fusion of blues, rock, and North African traditional music rooted in rebellion, anti-colonialism, and the preservation of their culture.

“Music is what we use to bring up these topics,” says Mdou Moctar, virtuoso Nigerien guitarist and lead vocalist of his eponymous band. “Even if the situation [in Niger] hasn’t changed for the better, it’s still a great way to spread awareness of what we’ve been and are going through.”

Moctar’s mission is further amplified on his and the band’s upcoming release ‘Funeral for Justice’, scheduled to drop on May 3. Described as a “more raucous, aggressive, in-your-face” record than their 2021 breakthrough ‘Afrique Victime’ by the group’s American bassist, producer, and engineer Mikey Coltun, ‘Funeral for Justice’ is a searing critique aimed towards those in power and the West’s lack of concern at the plight of Moctar’s countrymen and the continent at large.

On the album’s towering title track, Moctar directly calls out Africa’s leaders and urges them to “quit sleeping” and “retake control of [their] resources”. He calls on the Tuareg to protect their native Tamasheq tongue from extinction at the hands of its French counterpart on ‘Imouhar’, which gallops towards a typically frenetic crescendo to emphasise the urgency of his rallying cry. Poignant closer “Modern Slaves” bemoans the world’s tendency to “be so selective about human beings”, and he condemns the country that brutally colonised them in the late 19th century on the electrifying “Oh France” (“We’re better off without its turbulent relation!”). Though Niger gained official independence in 1960, it wasn’t until last year when a coup d’etat took place that French military rule was finally overthrown.

Despite the exodus of France’s postcolonial remnants, Niger continues to suffer at the hands of a junta that isn’t doing the local populace any favours. “I see some leaders giving orders to have thousands killed while they’re comfortable in a position of safety, and that’s not fair,” Moctar tells NME via Zoom, adding that while people are happy with the removal of French troops and their plundering of uranium, other issues such as skyrocketing food prices or a lack of drinking water have yet to be properly addressed.

“People here aren’t even making $2 a day, yet they’re being bombed by missiles that cost millions. In my mind, all the world’s leaders are responsible for what’s happening in Niger.” Considering the lyrics prominently featured throughout his discography and his ties to the Tuareg of which he’s a member of, it’s no surprise that Moctar harbours righteous anger at the treatment of his homeland and its inhabitants.

Born and raised in northern Niger, Moctar first heard guitar music as an impressionable 12-year old after stumbling upon a street performance by Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou — a fellow Tuareg heralded as “the godfather of desert blues.” He would then overcome meagre resources and a strict Muslim upbringing by building his own instrument — a wooden plank strung by four bicycle brake cables — and practising in secret, using YouTube videos of Eddie Van Halen as guidance on how to perfect the tapping technique popularised by the legendary shredder.

Word quickly spread across the Sahel after recordings of his songs were shared via Bluetooth and SIM cards in the early 2010s. His bluesy riffs and haunting desert ballads quickly gained the attention of blog-turned-label Sahel Sounds founder Christopher Kirkley, who not only gifted Moctar his first proper six-string, but also cast him as the lead in a Tamasheq-language remake of Prince’s Purple Rain set in Agadez. It wouldn’t be long before Moctar would cobble together a formidable quartet, bringing rhythm guitarist Ahmadou Madassane, drummer Souleyman Ibrahim, and Coltun (who met Moctar after stumbling onto his Sahel Sounds catalogue) along for the ride.

Having already cut his teeth at the DIY punk scene in Washington D.C., Coltun had already played in Mali before falling in love with the Agadez region’s more restless brand of tishoumaren. “It was very similar to the music I grew up with,” he says, also noting how he saw Agadez’s style as a mix of West African rhythms and the punk spirit that bands like Fugazi and Jawbox embodied. “I mean this in a good way, but there was something fucked up about Moctar’s music in that it didn’t follow the typical Tuareg music structure. When I met Moctar and learned he was always down to experiment with something new, we immediately hit it off.”

Credit: Ebru Yildiz

Released in 2019, ‘Ilana’ was Moctar’s first full-band studio album. Filled with intense Mark Knopfler-esque solos and smouldering odes dedicated to the Tuareg struggle, ‘Ilana’ became the precursor to the more politically-charged ‘Afrique Victime’ a couple of years later. When asked if there was a thematic evolution of his work starting from ‘Ilana’, Moctar decides to go further back. “I see them as a series of episodes starting from [2017’s] ‘Sousoume Tamachek’ when I touched on the Tuareg struggle, then things evolved in ‘Afrique Victime’ when we brought up how so many women in Africa are still in need of medical help,” explains Moctar, lamenting on how children were still being born under trees to this day.

‘Ilana’ was the gateway for many, but ‘Afrique Victime’ truly propelled the group to worldwide renown. Prior to nabbing slots in Coachella and Glastonbury this year, they’ve already been selling out shows across the globe. To them, performing at raucous weddings in Agadez is no different to taking the stage anywhere from Berlin and New York’s DIY rock clubs to festivals in Wales, Brazil, and Australia. Following ‘Funeral for Justice’, they will be embarking on a European and US tour, stopping off at places including London, Paris, Chicago, and Philadelphia for headline gigs. It’s set to be a busy summer for Moctar and his troupe, who are relishing the chance to further stake their claim as one of the world’s most exciting and important rock bands.

Moctar’s meteoric rise has also triggered listeners and critics alike to call him the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara” — a label both he and Coltun are quick to shut down. “Mdou wants to be thought of as his own artist without comparisons,” says Coltun, adding that the group are more interested in removing themselves from the “world music” sandbox that Western audiences tend to categorise bands such as theirs. “Even though I admire what they did and the changes they brought to music, I’m not Jimi Hendrix nor am I Eddie Van Halen,” adds Moctar. “What’s more important to me are the messages we’re transmitting that come from our hearts.”

While the empowering shreds and scorching commentary on ‘Funeral for Justice’ should go some way towards enlightening fans about subjects mainstream media tends to ignore, Moctar remains committed to his humanitarian work in Niger. “After music, it’s what makes me happiest.”

Recalling a time when he felt traumatised at seeing children celebrate the sight of water regardless of how drinkable it was, Moctar began one of several projects dedicated to improving the lives of the people around him. “From that day, I decided that for every album we’d make, I would build a well,” he says, describing how he is intent on finding a drilling machine able to build deeper waterholes. “I always try to help when I can. I’m not looking to become rich or famous, that’s not what I live for,” he concludes. “ I only need enough to feed my family. That’s all I want in life.”

Mdou Moctar’s ‘Funeral For Justice’ is released May 3, 2024 on Matador Records

The post Mdou Moctar: one of the world’s most exciting and important rock bands appeared first on NME.

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