Imagine growing up in a remote village in the Sahara desert and hearing Eddie Van Halen for the first time via YouTube, the guitar legend’s explosive style hitting you almost completely detached from its musical and social context. Mdou Moctar can speak to that exact experience, one of the pivotal launching points for his journey into guitar-playing, and one of several extraordinary aspects of his story. Thankfully, the 35-year-old singer/songwriter (born Mahamadou Souleymane and now based in the Nigerian desert city of Agadez) gives listeners outside of Northern Africa an opportunity to experience the same sensation of unfamiliarity and intrigue in reverse … sort of.
Though Moctar is taking the assouf guitar tradition of the Tuareg people far beyond his native region, he’s playing an electrified strain of it, complete with flashy licks that rock fans anywhere will be well familiar with. Moreover, Moctar follows in the footsteps of Ali Farka Touré, Tinariwen, Abdallah Oumbadougou and, more recently, Bombino, all of whom preceded him in laying the groundwork for the worldwide popularization of the so-called desert blues style. Which means that Moctar’s sixth album Afrique Victime, his second with a full band, won’t sound nearly as alien to Western ears as one might presume Van Halen sounded to his.
In fact, it’s best to ignore the fact that Matador records is billing Afrique Victime as a cross between Van Halen, Black Flag and Black Uhuru. The label also describes Moctar’s last album, 2019’s Ilana (The Creator), as Black Sabbath meets ZZ Top. Moctar may be a Billy Gibbons fan, but those descriptors sell him short—not because it wouldn’t be cool as hell to hear a Saharan shredder type emerge from the Sahel setting his fretboard on fire, but because Moctar isn’t that player. As Afrique Victime makes abundantly clear, the real selling point here is how delightfully inviting and accessible he tends to be.
That’s not to say that Moctar’s playing isn’t colorful. On the contrary, his goal is to “spit out the sound of revolution” with his guitar as a way of speaking to multi-generational suffering wrought by the persistent violence, political instability and colonial aftershocks that continue to plague Africa as a whole—hence the new album’s title. Yes, there are blazing solos and squalls of feedback, such as on the extended lead section of the title track. Still, for all his chops, Moctar has a rare gift for fluidity, as he and rhythm/acoustic guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane meld assouf, rock, psych and jazz elements into a single stream under their fingertips.
For much of the album, the two guitarists (childhood friends who grew up in neighboring villages) hew closer to the gentle, sparkly style of Ghanaian highlife, intertwining their lines into intricate webs. Meanwhile, pillowy-soft tunes like “Tala Tannam” and “Bismilahi Atagah” amble along at a leisurely cadence that recalls the dreamlike aura of Ethiopian giant Mulatu Astatke’s instrumental “Tezeta” (Nostalgia). Of course, it’s important to remember that the Sahel is far from both Ethiopia and Ghana, and that their respective musics aren’t interchangeable. That said, it’s also important to keep in mind that, to this day, the Tuareg people control trade routes that have historically connected Sub-Saharan Africa to points north and east, so it makes perfect sense that Moctar’s music would incorporate hallmarks from other parts of the continent.
He and the rest of the band—Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim and Brooklyn-based producer/bassist Michael Coltun, who would routinely go through a grueling 48-hour journey just to rehearse with the others—vary their approach from song to song with such impeccable grace that Afrique Victime never settles into one gear. Nevertheless, as a complete work, the album goes down in a single, 40-minute gulp as easily as a glass of cool (if spicy) iced tea that leaves you tingling with refreshment and leaves myriad flavors on the tongue long after the fact. By naming the album as he did, Moctar positioned Afrique Victime as a political statement. To be sure, the title track, with its references to Mandela and Gaddafi (and its refrain that translates from French to “if we stay silent, it will be the end of us”), prods listeners into thinking about geopolitics, though the commentary never rises above vague, feel-good platitudes that don’t offer much substance.
Mostly though, Moctar sings in the Tuareg language Tamasheq about love—romantic love, but also love for the desert and its wildlife, employing melodic vocal scales that anyone who’s familiar with Middle Eastern/Arabic-based musical forms will recognize immediately. A Muslim whose parents harbored a strong disdain for music, believing it to be a surefire road to degeneracy, Moctar’s chaste, unadorned lyrics present pastoral scenes that perfectly match the instrumentation. Interestingly enough, Moctar’s lyrics don’t touch on the depth of his ardor for music itself. After hearing Abdallah Oumbadougou, Moctar was so undeterred by both the objections of his parents and his lack of resources that he built a guitar himself, with strings made out of bicycle cables.
Such resourcefulness explains why Moctar was able to establish a reputation outside the Aïr Mountains, going viral across North Africa by sharing his first album Anar via cell phone memory cards back in 2008. (Matador is also releasing Afrique Victime in cell-phone format.) Since then, Moctar has risen to international prominence, even starring in the lead role in a 2015 Niger-based remake of Purple Rain. These days, Moctar’s music bears virtually no trace of his early lo-fi aesthetic—and that’s as it should be. While recording limitations can often yield fantastic results, Afrique Victime benefits enormously from Coltun’s full-fledged production, which gives Moctar an appropriately wide canvas for his vision to blossom on.
In so many ways, the album represents the full realization not just of Moctar’s individual artistry, but of what’s possible when influences collide in unexpected ways. Even in this age of global connectivity, there are still vast swathes of people and culture that haven’t made much contact with one another. Then again, without that separation, Mdou Moctar’s sound wouldn’t have evolved into the stunning, unique desert flower that it is. Afrique Victime stands as a testament to what a miracle it is that music can travel as far as it does, even when the internet helps bridge the gap.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.