Prolific Tuareg songwriter/guitarist Mdou Moctar, born Mahamadou Souleymane, is Muslim, does not drink, and has given up smoking, but his catalog sounds like an intensely cinematic, psychedelic trip. Afrique Victime—Moctar’s first release on Matador Records, which came out in May—follows 2019's rock-bound Ilana: The Creator, a masterpiece in its own right that garnered him much-deserved attention in the West. More than a decade before that, Moctar’s profile grew when songs, like those included on 2008’s Anar, were passed around the Sahel region of Africa via Bluetooth and memory cards.
Moctar’s electrifying backing band currently includes rhythm guitarist/backing vocalist Ahmoudou Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim, and bassist Michael Coltun. Mdou Moctar's music—which you can hear live this Saturday and Sunday at Mississippi Studios—had audible influences like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, mixed with traditional, melodic Tuareg music (Takamba), utilizing a stringed instrument called a Ngoni, and the Calabash, a percussion instrument.
Recorded gradually during tour breaks, Afrique Victime demonstrates a thoroughgoing of the artist’s immense talents, and how much he’s overcome to continue developing as a musician in the desert of Africa. The newest full-length becomes a summary of all the Mdou Moctar records; Afrique VictimeAnar, acoustic guitar like Sousoume Tamachek, field recordings like that of AfelanIlana: The Creator.
Every song is necessary on Afrique Victime, and no skips are needed. Even the hard-to-impress folks over at Pitchfork rated the album an 8.4, tagging it as “Best New Music.” Fiery album opener “Chismiten” is about people around the world who lose themselves in a relationship to the point of becoming envious of others. With a title meaning “your tears,” “Tala Tannum” is a tranquil love song, and the music video depicts the love between friends and family, and among the Tuareg community in Niamey, and the Hausa people in the Dosso region.“Ya Habibti” and the acoustic blues track “Layla” (about Moctar’s titular romantic partner, who was giving birth when he was halfway around the world) pay homage to one of Moctar’s heroes, Abdallah Ag Oumbadagou, a legendary Niger musician and political revolutionary who was also a contemporary of Tinariwen and helped to pioneer the Tuareg style of guitar that’s mixed with electronic elements and drum machine. A short “Untitled” interlude splits the project in half and re-orients the listener with a field recording. The nostalgic “Asdikte Akal” is dedicated to the concept of home.
Since Afrique Victime is so fluid and dynamic, it’s a difficult task to pull it apart into highlighted favorites. The mournful but dazzling seven-minute title track, however, does make a good case: a flaming volley against post- and neocolonialism that becomes an epic jam session culminating in a heroic, noisy solo from Moctar. Moctar sings in part Tamashek and part French, and the lyrics translate to: “Africa is a victim of so many crimes/If we stay silent it will be the end of us/Why is this happening? What is the reason behind this?”
A new short film, Afrique Victime: The Documentary, explains that in December 2020, the pandemic kept Mdou Moctar and the majority of his band in their home country of Niger, preventing them from traveling to promote the album. After American bassist Mikey Coltun flew out to Niger hauling cameras and recording equipment, the group soon realized it was too dangerous to travel around Niger, due to guerrilla groups like Boko Karam who have risen to prominence and committed repeated attacks. The band decided to instead reunite and record in the capital, Niamey.
Frontman Moctar has also focused on traveling to villages in Niger to build mosques and wells for people without water and electricity, as well as buying clothes and food for people in need. Moctar has spoken out against the atrocities happening in Niger, and his music aims to do the same by painting a picture of the complex international and regional geo-political circumstances of his homeland, as France still maintains a military presence in Niger in order to exploit its land (and people) for uranium. On Afrique Victime, joyful crescendos, chaotic solos, and at times violent noise combine with soothing sections that both calm, provoke, and move the listener. Overall, there’s a feeling of soaring through the cosmos, with slabs of comet tumbling past, while lightness and darkness coexist together somehow. This is perhaps yet another nod to the black-and-white Saharan bird on the band’s album cover, which symbolizes the beauty of Black and white people when they come together. (Mdou Moctar’s performance turbans and clothing are also typically black and white.)
For those dancing your asses off and getting lifted at the set at Mississippi Studios, pay attention to how Moctar plays with ferocity using his speedy finger-picking technique for lots of open chords on his left-handed guitar, and arrangements that emphasize his hypnotic rhythm section. If you’re unable to secure a ticket to Mdou Moctar’s current tour, the band’s entire discography is intoxicating, and makes for a uniquely sublime work-from-home playlist.