By combining the hazy swung boogie of the Delta with the effortless versatility of a shredder, Mdou Moctar at once stakes his place as the best blues guitarist since John Lee Hooker and the greatest rock soloist since Eddie Van Halen.
I have long thought that, much like the Iraq War, “rock and roll” per se never occurred. The music of port cities, of caravans, river deltas and mountain valleys—indeed of human exchange itself—has had many names. It carries with it the sand of the desert, the heat of the jungle, the blood of warfare and the yoke of labour, and the rhythm of freedom pulsing like an open wound.
On Ilana: The Creator, Moctar’s latest for Sahel Sounds and his first with a full band, you’ll be particularly captivated by the orgiastic incantations on the opening track “Kamane Tarhanin,” with the group rocking like their fellow Sahel blues stars Tinariwen, yet with chanting reminiscent of the Islamic Sufi sect of Gnawa musicians. Side B brings the more blistering Van Halen-esque shredding on “Tarhatazed,” with a dynamic pacing so unhinged ordinary structure, you’ll feel that the song has been stopping-then-starting for an eternity.
But is this rock? Is it soul? Is it blues? It’s ultimately immaterial to the enjoyment of the music, but a key ingredient to Moctar’s success involves tapping into hidden connections between Africa and so-called Western music, which has largely borrowed motifs whole-cloth from Africa anyway. His 2008 debut release Anar, for example, featured prominent drum machines, synthesizers, and Auto-Tuned vocals; a manifestation of African pop and its parallel development with modern diaspora R&B. Moctar later scored a Tuareg adaptation of Prince’s Purple Rain, which itself tapped into a resurgence of Prince-mania in the United States.
Mdou Moctar has hit a nerve by tapping into a universal strain of swinging, grooving, hard-funked music, like sticking a fork into an electrical outlet of global culture. His success in Europe and North America comes as no surprise, given that John Lee Hooker’s music drove crowds into all-night dancing reveries when he visited his African blues kinsman Ali Farka Toure.
As much as nefarious forces have tried to pull us apart, rhythms bring us together.
Historians credit the shackles chaining the feet of slaves in South American ports for birthing the one-two shuffle of Cumbia music. What a truly terrifying thought—but it’s high time we start thinking about all the blood and chains behind the music we enjoy, and how we associate it with a commodity of “authenticity” that pervades our aesthetic judgements. Is Mdou Moctar, the Nigerien wizard of Sahel blues-rock, more true to the form because he plays the music of displaced wartime refugees?
No. Let’s reject the idea that the sufferings of the world sow the seeds of its beauty. The sizzling lead guitar and lumbering, hopping-crazy rhythms of Moctar’s band come from a place of innate joy in the human experience, of dancing and praise and togetherness. There’s evidence enough of that if you go to any of his jam-packed shows on his tours across Europe and North America. The sweat and the rocking limbs is all the spilling of strife we need.
The Tuareg people have suffered for decades as a marginalised ethnic group under the Nigerien government, enduring brutal military retaliation after two separate Tuareg rebellions: one in 1990 ending in 1995, and another from 2007 to 2009. It was during the second rebellion that roads were cut off to Agadez, the central city in Niger where thousands of displaced refugees converged, that Moctar recorded his first album in Nigeria. The album went viral on the informal Sahel market of music traded on mobile phones, and Moctar was featured on the landmark compilation Music from Saharan Cell Phones.
But warfare has continued to torment the Tuareg people. After a 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state of Azawad, but in the ensuing power vacuum, the extremist militant group Ansar Dine sought to outlaw popular music and persecute performers who sang anything but Quranic verses. One member of the Tinariwen was kidnapped and imprisoned for several weeks after trying to rescue his guitars, but was fortunately saved.
Moctar, meanwhile, was destined for stardom. After first making contact with Sahel Sounds in 2014, Moctar was sent a left-handed guitar, Anar was reissued on vinyl, and despite being gouged by the unscrupulous business practices of certain Danish tour managers, he got his name out there. And now we have Ilana: The Creator.
None of this is to wax pathetic over the plight of refugees, but to insist that refugees are not our minstrels; nor are they mere sob stories to entertain us before we forget them and go about our business. They are already, whether you like it or not, part of our human community. Refugees are owed their rightful share from the capital of stable nation-states and the consumers seeking out a rockin’ good time.
Ilana is pure perspiration—not from crossing deserts or fleeing bullets, but from dancing, nodding, playing. It’s fun, and fun need not be “exotic” or edgy to connect with us. You will love it. But will you love your fellow human beings more as a result? That’s your choice. Right now, there’s an easier one: give Mdou Moctar his hard-earned money from your wallet and buy this album.
But as you sit there and enjoy the deeply common human joy of Ilana, remember that many others cannot. Currently, over 20 million people in the Western Sahel region are in danger of extreme hunger. You can donate to transparent, responsible charities such as the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) to help end the hunger crisis.