In 2014 I caught a set from Niger guitarist Mdou Moctar at Café Oto in the UK that was an incendiary set of urgent electrified and gritty Tuareg blues. My lasting memory is a serene Moctar, eyes closed leaning back, grinning and riffing endlessly into the night. The next day I tracked down his 2013 album Afelan and everything I could find from Sahel Sounds.
He first came to the notice of Sahel Sounds via his incredible debut album Tahoultine, which set him apart from other Tuareg shredders thanks to its electronic drums and vocals treated with a bizarre autotune effect. You can hear it on Music for Saharan Cellphones. From acting in and soundtracking a Tuareg take on Purple Rain, to relentless touring, to 2017’s predominantly acoustic Sousoume Tamachek recorded in a Portland basement, Moctar has been ridiculously proficient. So it would stand to reason that eventually he would his way back into the studio, this time with a live band.
To some extent this is wish fulfilment stuff for him. It’s Moctar worshipping at the altar of 70’s hard rock. You can hear ZZ Top in his warm guitar tone, Hendrix, Zeppelin, all of his guitar heroes, but mostly they just coalesce into the sound of him and his band thanks to their exuberance and the infectiousness of Moctar’s personality. The handclaps and elements of traditional percussion further move it closer to Tuareg traditions – as do Moctar’s plaintive vocals, though it’s hard to deny that this is an album that feels stuck between two worlds. Actually ‘stuck’ is not really fair, it’s more that his music is joyfully straddling two worlds – which is what makes it so interesting. Music is about cross pollination of ideas, and they’re on show here. Significant too is the fact that Moctar is finally operating on an equal playing field, in a studio equipped with many of the tools of his aforementioned heroes.
There’s a real energy to music, a ‘liveness’ that you can’t manufacture in the studio. They feel like a jam band, stretching out and building these ecstatic riffs – you can feel the joy in their playing. Ilana: The Creator is Moctar set free, given everything he needs to create the album he wants, and as such it feels like a significant step forward for an artist who continues to evolve in new and interesting ways.