In The universe, the riff and the rhythm of Mdou Moctar count but the solo is king. Its anchoring in the nomadic Tuareg style of assouf (desert blues) has made it a popular option on the Niger wedding circuit, but the guitarist breaks with convention by stubbornly following his fingers to a new place. A decade of refinement has led to Africa Victim, the most comprehensive document on Mdou’s abilities to date and one of the most electrifying releases of 2021.
Young Mahamadou Souleymane was not only self-taught, but self-assembled: he fashioned his first instrument from bicycle yarns and scrap wood and quietly maintained his passion for music in defiance of his family. His first recordings crossed the Sahel via Bluetooth and pricked up ears for their application of AutoTune and drum machines – common in the charts of neighboring Nigeria but unfamiliar in Tuareg lore.
In the early 2010s, the specialized music label Sahel Sounds began to distribute Mdou’s music around the world. Label founder Chris Kirkley then spent months trying to track down who they called Mokhtar (The Chosen One) to give the left-handed player a better-equipped guitar for his needs. In 2015, he wielded the instrument in a quasi-adaptation of the film by Prince Purple Rain (Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai). Mdou, flanked by a full band, has honed his reputation with international tours in which his hypnotic guitar twang established itself as a lively and daring sound. It is this sort of intuitive fretwork that elevates Afrique Victime, while Mdou transforms stable two-chord songs into thick curls of down that engulf the stereo field.
Two theoretically opposed rock impulses come together in Mdou’s music. On the one hand, the band’s adaptability has a clear connection to the no-frills enterprise of punk and hardcore. They lug their gear around cutthroat terrain and can trigger a gig just about anywhere with a generator. (And the formats whose fidelity is disputed do not prevent the message from getting across: to serve fans in regions covered by 2G networks, Matador also sold Afrique Victime in the form of a personalized Nokia 6120 phone.) On the other, Mdou’s fixation with the crest Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen’s lead roles and playfulness sense emboldened the Nigerian to flex his skillful fingering. Already a “feeling player” by nature, as bassist and in-house producer Mikey Coltun puts it, Mdou now embraces classic rock flair.
Afrique Victime streamlines the eye-catching attack on Mdou’s 2019 LP, Ilana: the Creator, into something more complete. Coltun’s sequencing provides pauses between breakwater breakers, giving the necessary silence to introspective ballads Bismillah Atagah and Tala Tannam while allowing the molten psychedelia of Taliat and Asdikte Akal to expand. True to the Saharan origins of music, there is ample space here. Sometimes Mdou’s voice barely exceeds a whisper before the group joins him in heavenly summons.
Singing in Tamasheq, Mdou expands his romantic and hitherto apolitical writing by imploring people to be proud of the beauty of the desert and to train their contempt for the French and American imperial forces who exploit the Tuaregs, the Nigeriens and the communities. from across the African continent.
Mdou’s evolved technique is brilliantly applied to the title song of Afrique Victime, the album’s truest shredder. Tumbling toms and screaming licks slice through the air like jets through a thunderstorm as the singer lashes out at those who commit crimes against his homeland. If Mdou is a cult new DIY hero, it’s his hymn equivalent to HÃ¼sker DÃ¼’s Reoccurring Dreams or Wipers’ Youth of America: moments when underground favorites unlocked new levels of musicality, galloping to the edge of the boisterous expression over double-digit durations with sparkling solos that never seemed to end.
This virtuosity makes Mdou Moctar a curious candidate for weddings (which he always plays when not on tour) but a dazzling presence in left-wing rock. Afrique Victime’s personal and provocative sound is an eruptive declaration of intention, guitar music both familiar and surprisingly fresh.