We chat to the high-flying Niger guitarist about his latest album and the role colonial powers have played in crimes across his Tuareg community and the rest of Africa.
Mdou Moctar‘s voice is ringing loudly in my ears as we sit 5000 miles apart to talk about his latest album Afrique Victime, which came out recently on New York’s legendary Matador Records. Calling from the ancient city of Agadez, he tells me that “music is forbidden in Islam” and whilst listening to “Chismiten”, the opening track to this wildly graceful record, you can almost understand why.
As crunching footsteps lead you in, giving immediate context to space and terrain, the majestic reverb of spiraling riffs and high-pitched cries fling you into a world of infinite zooming. It offers no less than the promises of the cosmos, a psychedelic weaving at hand that evokes the many mysteries that can be rung from a guitar. Backed by a rhythm section that lurches into terrifying joy, Mdou Moctar is a man absolutely possessed by talent, unafraid. A timeless voice from the dusty villages of Niger that soothes and provokes in equal measure.
From the chaotic and violent crescendos of the title track to the plaintive voices that echo through you in “Tala Tannam” there are moments on this record that match the most defiant wile outs of Jimi Hendrix. Jimi grooved to Tuareg and Berber rhythms, himself, when travelling down the coast of 1970’s Morocco, but Mdou Moctar has created a whole new experience. And whilst calling out the crimes being committed by the French military in his region, where blood spills over Uranium are a very real thing, he points a finger at us all. It’s a feeling that is hard to shrug off.
What are you doing with your days back home in Niger?
There is lots of work to do here. I am building in every way that I can. By travelling to local villages, I am faced with the reality of what it is to live in the desert. There is a lack of water, so I am building wells for them and their animals and also buying food and clothes for those in need. I know that God created me right here and I am obliged to leave my mark. We are not on this Earth for all eternity — and money is worthless, so leaving it in a bank when those around you are hungry makes no sense.
Luckily you’re a musician, a great choice for someone who doesn’t care about money.
[Chuckles] A millionaire with all the money in the world couldn’t pay to experience the life I live. You have to be brave to go with little. What would be the point of having millions with no intention or any vision?
Your music has taken you across the U.S., and not just a few shows. That also takes great endurance and dedication.
I have played so many shows in America that I have lost count, that’s true. I get my strength and energy to play when seeing people dance. It’s not just the shows, of course, I can play my guitar by the river in any city and still get to meet people. What I appreciate is that I am never stopped by a policeman asking, “Where are your papers, what are you doing here, where are you going?” You have that at the airport and then after that, you are relatively free.
“I need to highlight the crimes being committed across Africa. People are being killed day by day, and the world needs to understand the size of this tremendous adversity that we face.”
I first heard of you after seeing videos of your band kicking up dust at a wedding party in a village near Agadez. Do you still play these kinds of shows?
I don’t. I could not bring myself to risk the lives of others. The bandits that are Boko Haram are so many now that I’m scared that something could happen that would scar my conscience forever.
The rise of these kinds of attacks in your region since the fall of Gaddafi in Libya seems no more than an attack against culture and joy.
All of this is simple: It is down to France, which is behind most problems in West Africa. Boko Haram is only a small armed community on motorbikes. They have planes and army bases across the whole region and if they wished they could allow people to go back to living their lives. It’s in their interest instead, for people to live in fear, so as to manipulate and control them.
Listening to your music puts me in a soothing trance. Do you believe in magic?
Magic exists of course and it is spoken of in the Qu’ran, but it is forbidden for us to practice magic. Anything that is a distraction from God is prohibited. To be involved in spilling blood or making human sacrifices is beyond me. If someone is thirsty, give them a drink. If someone cries, comfort them until you see them smile again. This is the only magic that exists for me.
Your music sounds like a dialogue that you have with something greater than us, a link to divine spirituality.
Music is forbidden in Islam. I’m an artist and I keep this aspect separate. Look, I don’t drink beer, I don’t take any stimulants, I’ve even given up smoking. Music is dangerous because it can make people want to sleep together and be wild. Despite all of this I am Muslim and I make music. But I have also built mosques. In my songs, I have spoken of the Prophet and the deep spirituality of Islam but now I’m focused on the revolution that is happening all across Africa and not just in my Tuareg community.
Rebellion seems to run straight through Afrique Victime. Are you addressing France directly?
I need to highlight the crimes being committed across Africa. People are being killed day by day, and the world needs to understand the size of this tremendous adversity that we face. Manipulated into conflicts with each other and destroying ourselves in their name, the corruption that runs rife at their hand is enormous. Gaddafi, Thomas Sankara, Lumumba, and countless other leaders have been assassinated and France has been behind every single one of these incidents. Why are they here with their bases in the Sahel? It cannot go unsaid. I will continue to speak out, even if it kills me.
It’s a shame we are talking to each other in French whilst you say all of this.
We can go to the toilet in the shower but it doesn’t mean that we want to sleep in shit.