MDOU MOCTAR is at last gathering momentum; but it’s been an epic journey since 2008, when his raw emotional guitar music first began to spread across West Africa via the DIY network of traded SIM cards.
Picked up by Chris Kirkley of Sahel Sounds, who sent Mdou a much-needed left-handed Strat, then released his first four albums, the Tuareg musician has always shown nothing but perseverance and determination.
Things began to pick up speed with the release of the Ilana, The Creator album in 2019, with its tighter, rock-driven sound, honed through relentless live work with his band. Merging the characteristic desert blues throb with surging guitar lines, pounding bass and chant-based vocals, Ilana… whipped up a haunting psychedelic whirlwind.
So news of a move onto the hefty Matador label and the release of his next album, Afrique Victime, on May 21st, has been much anticipated by fusionists from all directions. Now, with the waiting over and the new album ready to hit your turntables, it’s clear that the Mdou Moctar trajectory is set to continue reaching upwards. Afrique Victime is a refreshingly undiluted offering, grounded in its cultural roots, undaunted in its messaging and committed to making an impact.
Opening track “Chismiten” captures all these elements in an adrenaline-pumping statement of intent. The scene is set with charismatic street sounds before Moctar’s searing guitar flurry cuts through the haze. His intricate lead lines spiral to one of those ‘yes’ moments, when the flurry of fingers pauses, the cleanest note hangs suspended and rhythmic engine of the band bundles in. It’s an intro rush that will take some beating in 2021, setting up a song that swirls in a powerful storm of booming riffs and pulsating interplay.
That inspirational knack of channeling the agility and emotional force of the best rock music and then blending it with new terrains lies at the heart of Afrique Victime’s success. Much stems from the intuitive connection between Moctar and his longstanding guitar partner Ahmoudou Madassane, whose characteristic rhythmic chops and chimes gel so fluently with his band leader’s fret board explorations. “Asdikte Akal” and the sashaying “Tallat” highlight this relationship, rumbling wonderfully along their way, but it’s on the title track that the tight Mdou Moctar template gets stretched and extended to a new destination.
“Afrique Victime”, a politically charged song exposing the devastating effect of colonisation, announces itself with a pleading vocal and those strident power chords that suggest a well-trodden way forward; but which then takes some less expected twists and turns. There’s singing with the melodic leaps of rai music; big, Eighties’ electro drum rolls; Blackmoresque feedback histrionics; tempo shifts that hit a disco fusion bpm; and ecstatic psyche guitar/fuzz bass exchanges. So a sound that achieves the epic and marks out new ground being broken by the band – a bit mad, a bit messed up, but undeniably massive.
Elsewhere the expansion of the group’s ambitions reveals itself in the more restrained but equally impressive earthy acoustic side of their music. Both “Ya Habibiti” and the album’s closer “Bismilahi Atagah” are buoyed with those fluid percussive cross-rhythms and unamplified, almost bluesy, guitar patterns that emphasise their melodic strength and communal roots. The gorgeous love song “Tala Tannam” melts in the soothing blend of cascading six-string and soulful lead guitar trimmings that highlight the finesse of Moctar as a player.
But maybe the most striking example of their new imaginative reach is heard on “Layla”, written as a tribute not to that guitar god but to one of Mdou’s heroes, Abdallah Ag Oumbadagou, legendary Niger musician and political revolutionary. Here the strong, strutting acoustic riff, all resonant plucks and strums, rolls into that full-on drone overdrive that distinguishes the finest desert blues. It’s a track that’s destined for future reverence.
You can imagine that as time passes Afrique Victime will be seen as a touchstone for the coming together of West African music and western rock. It relishes those flamboyant, abandoned influences but never tries to imitate them. This is an album that has integrity, shaped by Moctar’s relationship with the Agadez region in Niger, a connection that continues to be his band’s inspiration and the source of its undeniable power.
Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime is out now on Matador Records digitally, on CD and on trad back vinyl, purple vinyl and label webstore exclusive tri-colour vinyl; order yours direct from the label, Rough Trade in the UK, or visit your friendly neighbourhood record store.