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Soft Revolution in a Free Guitar Rhythm: An Interview with Mdou Moctar

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He is called Hendrix of the Sahara. The music that Mdou Moctar and his band create carries memories through traditional guitar rhythms which, rich in flow, are a fusion between the desert nomads and the modern diaspora. Performing as a band, they break with tradition while creating a new cultural essence.

Mdou Moctar’s show at Ottobar last month was different from the first time I saw him and his band live at the Creative Alliance three years ago. Moctar and guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane have gathered crisp and bright guitar tones along with more exquisite layers of instrumental sound for the new album Afrique Victime. Their amazing guitar solo skills in the interludes, and flowing, lingering melodies, move people unconsciously into a wandering trance.

Drummer Souleymane Ibrahim confronts the sound of the guitar with his raised drumset, and along with bassist Mikey Coltun’s calm and subdued rhythms, both allow the musical pattern to progress—unhurried, accompanied with the reverberating sound of singing, towards ancient memories in the vast desert. Moctar sculpts a new voice by merging traditional Tuareg music and historical culture in the lyrics and tunes, and shaping contemporary Tuareg music by singing of his personal life experiences in the language Tamasheq, which few people in the world understand. Yet, such performance has also been a constant form of expression since ancient times.

Moctar’s music inherits the Ichumar guitar music genre (called tichumaren in some areas) that is fostered by the younger Tuareg generations in Niger and Mali. The genre has slowly evolved from the revolutionary song originally composed by rebels into what is now a modern style with elements from rock music. What remains unchanged in the music is the praise of warriors who in the past fought for freedom and protected the poor. Mdou’s first live album, Afelan, for example, pays tribute to Afelan, a warrior from the Azawagh region, slightly reminiscent of the West’s Robin Hood. Some of the audience at the Ottobar, who were from the local Nigerien community, expressed enthusiastic passion for this performance and likewise paid tribute by throwing money on the stage. Such expressions add to the unique experience of Moctar’s live shows, allowing audiences to share a long-lasting cultural memory. 

 

Money thrown on the stage at Mdou Moctar show at Ottobar, September 2021

In 2007, Tuaregs rose up against the state of Niger in part to protest economic exploitation. In order to suppress the rebels, the government banned the Tuaregs’ use of guitars as a transmission tool for political messaging. The guitar is regarded as a symbol of Tuareg rebellion in Niger and Mali. As a Tuareg from Niger, Moctar’s guitar playing is, to a certain extent, a unique, free expression of resistance to the power of postcolonialism. The cultural tradition of the Tuareg people to utilize the narrative of song and poetry to delicately express the richness and longevity of the Tuareg culture also promotes contemplation and change. 

Today, Tuareg contemporary history tells much about the crisis of colonialism, displacement, and the high unemployment rates in countries where the Tuareg reside, as well as the emergence of feminism. The use of music and performance art becomes not just a way of resisting but also of translating culture and history. By injecting the foundation of tradition into modern works, they are also able to bring history into a contemporary form. As the Nigerian novelist Isidore Okpewho wrote in the article “Rethinking Epic,” “a concept of tradition as a fossilized frame of cultural reference needs to be seriously reconsidered if we accept that time forces change upon social and other forms of reality.”

Through this interview with Mdou Moctar, I felt the unswerving strength of Tuareg music as an instrument in regaining the power of their narratives. Perhaps we could seriously consider, on the global stage, what their music symbolizes about their identity, history, and struggles, and witness through their performance this vital expression of their own culture and traditions.

 

 

It is the reality of what surrounds me that inspires me. It's nature that gives me inspiration to create certain sounds. . . . it's really life offering themes for me to write about.
Mdou Moctar

Jaddie Fang: For the latest album, there are so many songs that were recorded in different studios, from Amsterdam to Michigan and Los Angeles. Why is that?

Mdou Moctar: It’s because we wanted to take our time on recording. We decided we’re going to record this album as if we’re doing it live. We would go to the studio and do two to three tracks and then we’d leave. I have great respect for sound engineers and what they do. I don’t know how to do it, because I just get really stressed. If I’m locked up for a really long time trying to record a whole album in one studio, it prevents me from having the freedom to play when I want to. And obviously there are also quite a lot of constraints in terms of the times that the studio is open. So my preferred method is to do it bit by bit.

I think while on tour is an ideal moment to record for us, because it’s got that tour energy. We’re really used to playing live and being very practiced. And another thing is we’re interested in seeing the methods of different sound engineers, it’s nice to see some diversity.

Your latest album, Afrique Victime, expresses the pursuit of Africans as equals in the world. It also echoes what you said in an interview with the Guardian in 2019 when your last album, Ibitlan, was released: “France says we are independent now but we have no independence, we are modern slaves . . . ” This sounds like a concept of para-colonization, a criticism of the way the upper class retains its power through economics or technology, as well as the social control over countries that lack various civic resources. What do you think an “independent” entity/country should be like?

Of course, we feel that we’re modern slaves because we don’t get to decide. It’s always France, right? One example is the Franc, which has been used as currency in many countries in Africa. It has very little value. And many French people don’t even know that it exists, even though it is exclusively printed in France, and it was imposed by France. Being free is attained through being left alone. Countries should be allowed to exploit their own mineral resources, and choose who they want to work with, and construct themselves. Let young Africans learn how to work and be professionals in these fields. Everything now that we’re hearing about Africa is through France’s interpretation. And you know, France has found indirect ways to destroy African leaders who have stood up against that, like Thomas Sankara, who was killed [in 1987]. So, in the 21st century, Africa needs a new breath of life and its own voice, not France speaking for it all the time, and it needs to be able to exploit its own resources through its own choice.

Your music contains various forms of love; there are imaginative scenes for lovers, homeland, your country, and traditional culture. Can you share how you usually become inspired?

It depends. If I’m writing about love, it might be because I’m in a situation when I’m really in love. Really it is the reality of what surrounds me that inspires me. It’s nature that gives me inspiration to create certain sounds. I write what I feel deep inside me when I’m in love. Sometimes I write about nostalgia as well, like when I’m away from my country. And not just when I see positive things; if I see jealousy, jealousy around me, then I want to write about it. So it’s really life offering themes for me to write about.

I would like to use a song as an example, like the first song, “Chismiten,” on the latest album. You sing, “to become a better person, you need to stop being so jealous and insecure.” What’s the context for writing this song?

From my understanding, jealousy can be a problem for many couples. I feel like there’s so many misunderstandings that stem from it, which I’ve seen many times. So that’s what inspired me. A lot of times, some couples might sadly break up if there was an incident, without each side really understanding what happened. Someone might see something and sort of delude themselves and decide that breaking up is a solution without even talking about the problem they perceived.

Just as an example, if you see your partner with someone else, and they seem to be talking intimately, or stroking each other’s heads, then you might assume that your partner is cheating on you. But maybe that’s just an old friend, and they haven’t seen each other for a long time. A friend she’s been talking about for a long time, and you’ve just never seen his face before. When people see these kinds of things, they might suddenly stop listening and shut themselves off, and end relationships without even checking. You might end the relationship right there without even having an opportunity to explain—and all of that is motivated by jealousy. Of course, jealousy doesn’t just happen between couples. It could be that you are feeling envious in a work context for instance, if you have the impression that someone is more successful. All of those situations are inspiring to me.

 

Mdou Moctar at Ottobar, September 2021
I feel like poets shouldn't have the borders of a single language. It's a great tool to be able to use any word that comes to your mind in any language. I think it gives you some freedom, and it creates a kind of strength in poetry.
Mdou Moctar

How do the band members combine your fascinating guitar melodies and rhythms into these beautiful songs? How do you all cooperate and make music with each other, building up the compositions and having that profound mix in the music?

Ahmoudou [Madassane] and Souleymane [Ibrahim] are from the same country as me and speak the same language. They understand everything I say, and they’re artists. It’s quite easy for them to know what I want as soon as I explain it. We’ve composed many songs together by now, so we’re really used to playing music together, and they know my tastes really well. It’s also the case for the bass player, Mikey [Coltun]. We’ve been playing together for years. When we compose songs, we tell Mikey what we’d like and how we would like for him to play. The other band members bring their ideas about melody, about how to arrange the sounds, and about when to stop. So we’re also creating the music in order for everyone to feel comfortable when they’re playing it.

Speaking of the lyrics, the world has been debating for centuries whether poetry can be translated, and whether poetry loses its true meaning from its original language through the translated language. As a musician and poet who writes in Tamasheq, do you worry about the distortion of the content of your work when people try to interpret it in a different language?

Thank you so much for that beautiful question. Yeah, it’s very difficult for me to see my songs being translated. Honestly, it is the hardest part in songwriting. I’d rather write a whole album in Tamasheq than see one of my songs translated. Sometimes you write beautiful poetry in your native language, and then someone translates it and suddenly it tastes of nothing. It loses its meaning. And I think it’s similar to people trying to translate humor sometimes. People might say something incredibly funny in English, and then they transcribe it in Tamasheq, and it means nothing. As if they had just randomly spoken, and it’s really not funny, and the other way around as well.

As a polyglot who can speak more than four languages, does this linguistic experience, or thinking in different languages, affect your process?

I think it’s incredibly helpful when you’re writing poetry and when you’re composing. I feel like poets shouldn’t have the borders of a single language. It’s a great tool to be able to use any word that comes to your mind in any language. I think it gives you some freedom, and it creates a kind of strength in poetry. You might start a poem in Tamasheq and then you might find a French word is more beautiful to convey a specific thing—for instance, you might think that the word “amour” is more beautiful than the word “tarha” in Tamasheq; or you might be looking for a certain type of word to rhyme that phonetically sounds right. So I think that can really add some quality to poetry.

“Hypnotic, seemingly endless lingering, intricate rhythm” is the Western world’s interpretation and description of Saharan music/desert blues. How would you personally describe and imagine Saharan music?

I would say that the music of the desert is one that has historical roots that go very far back. We have a tradition of warrior poets who are forging poetry. So it’s very historical. When you’re listening to music, another thing is I think it’s related to space. When you hear the music, you can hear the desert; you can hear the wind of the desert, the breath of the desert; you can hear the rhythm of the pace of the camels and the camel herders. That’s what I would say.

 

 

In recent years, European and American music critics have said that the best guitar rock today is the music from the Sahara Desert, and your music has also been mentioned as one of the important representatives. Besides being enlightened by Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince, do you feel that your guitar performance was also influenced by important moments of daily life—such as the celebration of birth, marriage, membership, formal religious rituals, etc.—or folk songs such as work songs, impromptu solo instruments, healing music, and Griots’ influence?

Thanks for mentioning that. I listened to a lot of local Griot poets. And also I listen to a lot of Takamba music that uses a lot of old traditional instruments. In Tuareg tradition, first there was Assouf music and Tende; Assouf is with women playing and men singing, and then when Takamba developed, it became more men playing with women doing the tempo rhythm through clapping. It’s really an incredible tempo. I listen to a lot of that. I love listening to the history of our ancestors, the poetry that was written while they were fighting for the freedom of the Tuareg people. You just get chills when you listen to it. Back then, they didn’t speak that many languages, so it’s very powerful that they use some vocabulary which sometimes I have to ask the older people to explain to me. I would say that poetry and Takamba music has influenced me much more than modern music.

The bassist, Mikey Coltun, described the vibe of performing in a wedding in your hometown as feeling like a Western DIY punk show, loud and full of energy, where everyone is doing their part to put the event together. One of the factors forming the DIY spirit is the lack of supporting resources. What kind of influence do you think this has on your own music creation?

I had to find resources myself and had to build my first guitar by myself, because that’s how it is here. You’ve got to make things work through all your efforts. When we were growing up, there were just no amps around. People would have to be creative. They would buy these other devices and extract the speakers, stick it on a guitar, and use cello tape to make the guitar sound electric. Same with mics, we didn’t have those either, it was all DIY. People who play Djembe would do that, and it is the same as Tende as well. They found a way to get the sound of electric drums by using their nails to hit the speaker.

When we were younger, it was a bit difficult and we suffered a bit. When I was building my first guitar, I just used bicycle cables, the brake cables. I opened up that part and extracted the little cables. I had never even touched real guitar strings in my life. I’d only seen major stars playing with them. You just couldn’t buy them locally. Once, when I was a kid, I was at a concert, and I just stayed really close—right next to the guitar player. During the whole concert, I just watched his guitar, and he was playing so hard that one of his strings broke, so he took it off and replaced it with a new one. Then he saw me, and he gave me the broken string. He didn’t know me, but he could see that I really liked it. It was such a holy guitar string that I just kept it in my bag for two years. It was like a miracle, a real guitar string. I don’t even know when I lost it, but you can imagine what it felt like.

In Niger, being an artist could easily make you a target by jihadists, so you must be very cautious in your words and actions. Your interview with New Noise also said, “everyone is not sure where the terrorists are, they may be around you. We must pay attention to every little thing: such as what we say, when we leave the house, and go out.” Do you think being cautious of everything reflects itself in your music creation?

For now, what I know is that artists are being targeted by terrorists. Terrorists hate them and have attempted to murder many. When they arrived in Mali, they murdered whole orchestras of people. Many artists fled to have a chance of survival. Recently, a young artist who was doing quite a few media interviews was killed in Burkina Faso. So of course it’s risky, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. I don’t know what the future will bring. Terrorists are capable of anything. So we ask for God’s protection.

 

Mdou Moctar at Ottobar, September 2021
We’re in the 21st century, we have access to modern technology, yet barbaric acts are still going on. . . . The West imposes itself, sets the rules, controls finances, and then holds the power of criticism.
Mdou Moctar

Continuing the previous question, you also said in that interview, “it’s a tradition for Tuareg warriors to listen to music to find courage during unstable times.” Could you characterize what you feel is the Tuareg warrior spirit?

The Tuaregs have many different warriors, but I’d like to talk about Afelan, a particular, very Tuareg one. His time was long before colonialism. He was an African poet. I love listening to the poetry of his story. I even paid homage, writing about him in a song on the album Afelan. He hated being used. He would take things by force from the rich and redistribute them to the poor. For instance, he would take any animals that he came across belonging to corrupt rich people and give them to the poor. He took pity on the weak, and always tried to protect them. He wasn’t educated, but human life had value to him, and he never asked for anything in return for doing good. Through his words, he was more of a lion than a human being, so he couldn’t collaborate with bad people. And he only ever used force against those who could defend themselves.

I think that, including myself, the concept of “jihadism” is deeply instilled in the Western world (the so-called “terrorists”), and we rarely have the opportunity to understand that real life is surrounded by jihadism. Of course, the Western world is also responsible for these problems, and the author John Berger once mentioned in his book Hold Everything Dear that the “seven levels of despair,” which are comprised of “one for each day of the week – lead to the revelation that to offer one’s life in contesting the forces which have pushed the world to where it is, is the only way of invoking an all, which is larger than that of the despair.” Do you have any thoughts on such perspectives?

In truth, if we’re being sincere, the Western world is behind all the instability in Africa. It’s not just in “jihadism,” but also coups. To Westerners, raw materials are worth more than humans, or at least when it comes to everywhere outside of the Western world. You can break down those materials and transform them into objects and tools, and that’s just how they treat us. Look at what’s going on in Afghanistan. How many people have disappeared? How many people have been raped? How many of them have been killed? The whole world is watching, and if they joined their comparatively vast forces, these crimes could be put to an end in a day. But nothing is being done. If something happens in the West, though, sometimes to a single citizen, it can be broadcast across the world in the media, and resources, presents sometimes, come flooding in.

Africa has saved the lives of so many Westerners by providing the raw materials that the West needs so badly, and we receive no consideration in return. Take uranium, which has been extracted for over 40 years, in particular to make vital electricity. Africa has not been given its freedom despite all its efforts for the Western world. It’s like dealing with a mafia. The slave trade is still going on, only a modernized version. We’re in the 21st century, we have access to modern technology, yet barbaric acts are still going on. It’s even worse. The West imposes itself, sets the rules, controls finances, and then holds the power of criticism.

Since you began touring in other countries, and have been doing about 250 shows, we could say that this kind of life experience is not typical. Does it impart any impact on your life back home? Does it affect your creative thinking and process?

In 2019, the band did 250 shows, but in reality, we did much more when we started in 2014. What I’d like to say is that I’m not at all at a stage where I’m thinking, “I’ve done enough concerts, I’d like to evolve towards other work.” I thank God for this opportunity. And I’m not the kind of person who, when I have money, it’ll change who I am. I divide my resources the best I can: Part of the money goes to my family, including my children, and the rest I hand out to those around me who are in need. I try to get some wells built, and a school. I’m financially supporting the studies of a few people who have lost their parents. If someone says to me, “I love playing a sport,” I’ll try to support them to make a living from it. My life alone is worth very little, so that’s my perspective. This year, and in particular right now, I’m planning on helping with the major Malaria outbreak in Niger. The government is doing its best, but I want to do my bit as well and buy some medicine. I’m not that rich, so I can’t buy that much, but I’d like to at least do what I can. It makes me happy.

 

 

Photos of Mdou Moctar at Ottobar, September 2021, by Jaddie Fang

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