Mdou Moctar immediately stands out as one of the most innovative artists in contemporary Saharan music. His unconventional interpretations of Tuareg guitar and have pushed him to the forefront of a crowded scene. Back home, he’s celebrated for his original compositions and verbose poetry, an original creator in a genre defined by cover bands. In the exterior, where Saharan rock has become one of the continents biggest musical exports, he’s earned a name for himself with his guitar moves. Mdou shreds with a relentless and frenetic energy that puts his contemporaries to shame.
Mdou Moctar hails from a small village in central Niger in a remote region steeped in religious tradition. Growing up in an area where secular music was all but prohibited, he taught himself to play on a homemade guitar cobbled together out of wood. It was years before he found a “real” guitar and taught himself to play in secret. His immediately became a star amongst the village youth. In a surprising turn, his songs began to win over local religious leaders with their lyrics of respect, honor, and tradition.
In 2008, Mdou traveled to Nigeria to record his debut album of spacey autotune, drum machine, and synthesizer. The album became a viral hit on the mp3 networks of West Africa, and was later released on the compilation “Music from Saharan Cellphones.” In 2013, he released “Afelan,” compiled from field recordings of his performances recorded in his village. Then he shifted gears, producing and starring the first Tuareg language film, a remake of Prince’s Purple Rain (“Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it”). Finally, in 2017, he created a solo folk album, “Sousoume Tamachek,” a mellow blissed out recording evoking the calm desert soundscape. Without a band present, he played every instrument on the record. “I am a very curious person and I want to push Tuareg music far,” he says.
His new album, “Ilana” is his most ambitious to date – taking the tradition into hyperdrive, pushing Tuareg guitar into an ever louder and blistering direction. In contrast to the polished style of the typical “world music” fare, Mdou trades in unrelenting grit and has no qualms about going full shred. From the spaghetti western licks of “Tarhatazed,” the raw wedding burner “Ilana,” to the atmospheric Julie Cruise-ish ballad “Tumastin,” Mdou’s new album seems at home amongst some of the great seminal Western records. But Mdou disagrees with the classification. Mdou grew up listening to the Tuareg guitar greats, and it was only in the past few years on tour that he was introduced to the genre. “I don’t know what rock is exactly, I have no idea,” he says, I only know how to play in my style.”
As Mdou travels the world, he divides his time between two places, alternating from lavish weddings in Agadez to sold out concerts in Berlin nightclubs. It offers a unique perspective, but also means that he needs to address different audiences. At home, his compositions send a message to his people. Abroad, his music is an opportunity to be heard and represent his people on a world stage.
His music has been featured in the BBC, The Guardian, Pitchfork, New Yorker, New York Times, L.A. Weekly, NPR, Rolling Stone, and Les Inrocks. His film continues to be screened at film festivals around the world.