Mdou Moctar on new album Afrique Victime

Ahead of releasing Afrique Victime, his first album on Matador Records, we speak to Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar

Feature by Max Pilley | 20 May 2021
  • Mdou Moctar

When Western audiences first heard Mdou Moctar’s 2019 album Ilana (The Creator), immediate comparisons were drawn between his skyscraping, Saharan guitar solos and the classic rock demigods of yesteryear. But where that album may have suggested Hendrix or Page, his new record and Matador debut Afrique Victime is, in his own words, more like “early Van Halen meets Black Flag meets Black Uhuru”. 

It's easy to understand what the Niger native, one of the most respected and successful musicians from the Tuareg tradition, means, too. The dazzling guitar lines this time around zing and bounce, driven by a newfound political fury and a rededication to representing and celebrating his indigenous culture; in other words, while the musical signature of the three reference points may not be written all over the album, the spirit of the artists he names most definitely is.

Take the thrilling, discordant rage at the climax of the album’s title track, which could just as easily have come from a sweaty San Francisco garage band. Moctar’s guitar crackles with static tension, the anger of the track’s message spilling over into a cathartic splurge of instrumental energy. It's the strongest representation of the shift in direction that defines Afrique Victime, one that Moctar felt was necessary based on his experience of living in his home country over the last few years.

“I take inspiration from my environment and what I see, and recently I’ve witnessed revolution increasing because of the consequences of modern colonialization,” says Moctar. “I want to write about current events in Niger, I feel like the West has no empathy for how people are living here in the desert. For instance, the condition of women, or the way uranium and gold are being mined in terrible conditions under the sun, or the way countries have installed military bases in the country and are providing people with weapons. That’s a reality. I feel like the whole world is saying that they’re looking for terrorists, but France is the real terrorist here.” 

Moctar’s passion burns through in conversation as fiercely as it does on the record. His own international career success to this point has afforded him both a perspective that few can compete with and a platform to raise the issue far and wide, and the responsibility is not lost on him.

“I hope to spread information through what I’m doing,” he says. “I know that change will never happen until world powers are truly exposed to these topics and really take in that innocent people are suffering for nothing.” He speaks too of the paucity of access to electricity, education and food for Nigeriens as crucial factors in sustaining the system of inequality that continues to oppress his people, adding, “It’s very hard, I understand, for everyone to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, we’re very much kept in the dark with regards to access to information. But it’s beyond me how people are seeing this and not reacting.”

Moctar is certainly reacting. He has poured money into opening a school in his hometown of Agadez and has helped to support emerging artists in the region by assisting in the procurement of touring visas and importing recording equipment into the country. He has also supported the emergence recently of the group Les Filles de Illighadad, the first female-fronted Tuareg band to gain traction outside of the country. The issue of women’s rights is another subject that Afrique Victime tackles head-on.

“One of the main issues here in Niger from what I understand, because I try to speak to a lot of families and help them as best I can, especially in the case of nomad families, is that people are afraid to educate women. There are no good high schools in the desert, so girls have to move alone to the city. Usually her parents won’t be able to financially support her so she struggles to eat and pay rent and it’s very easy for her to be taken advantage of.” He explains that the tendency for schools to expel girls that become pregnant exacerbates the problem and hopes that more like him will look to provide better and more supportive educational opportunities in the future.

If Afrique Victime is spearheaded by its politics, it is nuanced by a very different, much quieter force. Tracks like Tala Tannam and Ya Habibti are led by delicate, acoustic guitar, offering a reflective and gentle tone. “For most of my love songs,” Moctar explains, “I don’t want to have any extra guitar solos in them, but some songs, when I’m trying to get some rage across in them, like Afrique Victime or Chismiten, which is all about jealousy, then I really want to use that electric guitar to get that strong energy through. But if I’m talking about love, I want the sound to transmit empathy and I want to really slow down.”

Moctar grew up in thrall to Tuareg music, with a particular passion for the legendary Nigerien Abdallah Oumbadougou and his contemporaries in Tinariwen, with only a smattering of Western music filtering through, including a brief infatuation with Tupac and even a stray Celine Dion CD, the influence of which, it must be said, is difficult to trace.

One figure that shared Moctar’s love for the so-called desert blues from an early age was Ahmoudou Madassane, Moctar’s 13-year collaborator and rhythm guitarist. “To put it briefly,” says Moctar, “the way things work is I wouldn’t call Ahmoudou my friend, I’d call him my little brother. He was a fan of my music before he started to play himself and I’m tremendously happy to be working with him, we both rely on each other a lot. He knows the way I play by heart, which makes for a unique relationship where I feel very free when we’re playing together, and him too I think. It makes us want to do a lot of projects together.”

Moctar and Maddasane have toured the world with their music for many years, and it was on their first trip to New York City that the other key collaboration behind Afrique Victime was formed. Mikey Coltun is a Brooklynite producer and bassist who, having fallen for Moctar’s music from afar, pounced on the chance to meet the band and offered to move their gear and drive them from one city to the next. “Mikey is an incredibly nice person,” Moctar says. “He’s really a saint. I quickly understood that he was very intelligent and he had a good understanding of music from a young age.” Before long, Coltun was acting as the band’s tour manager and resident bassist and has been known to make the 20-hour flight and subsequent 28-hour drive required to get to Moctar’s base in Agadez.

It speaks to the strength of feeling that Moctar stirs in his listeners that two such talented musicians have been so powerfully attracted into his gravitational pull for good and with Afrique Victime, he has proven that not only are his musical talents hitting new peaks, but he is adamant to translate his talent into material change too.

Afrique Victime is released on 21 May via Matador