If you were to tell someone in the United States that you cut your teeth as a musician playing weddings, they would probably have a very specific idea of what that meant. And it wouldn’t sound anything like Mdou Moctar. “At weddings, it’s typically a lot of musicians taking turns playing, depending on the wedding,” wrote Moctar in an email, talking about his experiences playing weddings in Niger. “It’s important to me to make people dance and [be] happy, and the more energy we can create while playing, the more people dance, the more people dance, the more money the musicians make.” This would explain why the press release for Moctar’s new album Ilana (The Creator) describes some of the music as “raw wedding burners.”
Ilana (The Creator) is an album full of this kind of raucous energy channeled through Moctar’s incredible guitar playing, largely rooted in the Tuareg musical tradition, a sound that has grown in recent decades across the trans-national borders of its ethnic group. The story of Mdou Moctar’s rise in popularity will sound familiar to anyone who has heard stories of bands that got their start based on word-of-mouth tape trading.
“Where I live, the only way of trading music was through Bluetooth. We don’t have great internet connections like western countries, it’s just our cellphones. At first, bluetooth on cellphones helped musicians to spread their music to many people. Now we use WhatsApp in the same way. The music gets around once someone sends it to one person. In an hour, it ends up on WhatsApp to maybe the entire country.” This is how Moctar found himself getting noticed after his 2008 debut album, and the end result was the 2011 compilation Music From Saharan Cellphones, a collection of a wide swath of music that succeeded in a similar way. His song on that compilation – a drum machine, vocal effects, and an acoustic guitar – is a far cry from his latest record.
Ilana is sung entirely in Moctar’s native Tamashek language, so there’s a lot that English-only speakers are missing out on, but what does get conveyed is a sense of celebration, of urgency, and of life. Moctar has mentioned in interviews that he was only exposed to rock music within the last few years, so the elements that do show themselves on this album have a distinctly classic feel; when asked about his rock influences, he cited Hendrix, Van Halen and Prince. The title track opens with a classic stomping rock intro before heading off into a Tuareg gallop. Opener “Kamane Tarhanin” has the hypnotic drone of Moctar’s guitar running around an incredible bass line that interweaves itself within the sharp metallic notes. At just under 40 minutes, it’s an album that gives you so much to get lost in but also neatly portions itself.
“The audience seems to really like my music in America. Many of the people don’t understand what I’m saying but they like the energy that me and my band play. This is the style of the younger Tuareg generation, fast and lots of energy,” wrote Moctar when I asked about what it was like to play in the States to English speaking crowds. The intensity that carries throughout Ilana (The Creator) is apparent, and there’s no question that he’ll continue to light up audiences, including as an opener in May for Tame Impala. The guitar speaks plenty for that purpose. words / j neas
Psst….Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.