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Mdou Moctar has released a handful of excellent albums on Portland-based label Sahel Sounds, including this year's Ilana: The Creator.EXPAND
Mdou Moctar has released a handful of excellent albums on Portland-based label Sahel Sounds, including this year's Ilana: The Creator.
Courtesy Nikki Cells

Tuareg Culture Frowns on Music. Mdou Moctar Plays Psych-Rock Anyhow.

Mdou Moctar is the latest in a long line of Tuareg musicians to emerge from the Saharan region of Africa and find interest in other parts of the world. Before him, acts like Tamikrest, Bombino, Imarhan and Tinariwen have found success globally with hypnotic rhythms and psychedelic desert blues.

But where his predecessors’ music is deeply rooted in traditional Tuareg sounds, Moctar has always been more restless and more modern. His earliest work included programmed beats and heavily Auto-Tuned vocals. He made a name for himself on African mp3-sharing networks and gained a wider audience through Music From Saharan Cellphones, a compilation released by Portland-based Sahel Sounds that collected music found on the memory cards of African mobile phones. And in 2015, he starred in a Saharan adaptation of Purple Rain , playing himself in the Prince role.

Since then, the Nigerian guitarist has toured the United States a handful of times and released a series of excellent and increasingly accessible albums via Sahel Sounds. His most recent is Ilana: The Creator, an irresistible collection of blistering guitars, entrancing rhythms and traditional melodies intimately captured, for the first time, in a real studio, High Bias Recordings in Detroit.

On Monday night, Moctar’s latest U.S. tour brings him to Denver’s Globe Hall. We emailed him some questions and he emailed some answers back.  Here’s that conversation:

Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar is the latest in a long line of Tuareg musicians to find success outside the Saharan region of Africa.EXPAND
Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar is the latest in a long line of Tuareg musicians to find success outside the Saharan region of Africa.
Courtesy Jerome Fino

Westword: You were raised in an environment that frowned upon secular music. Do you remember when you were first exposed to music that felt forbidden? What kind was it, and do you remember how it made you feel?

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Mdou Moctar: There isn’t any music that is religious. All music for us is not religious. Music was never banned where I live, but religion preached against it. Even that wasn’t an obligation, but something that we weren’t supposed to do. The first time I listened to music in my life was when I was a kid. It was guitar music [by] Barmo, a guitarist who played folk songs with a school group in Niger.

Did you have any adults or older kids who encouraged your interest in music or your guitar playing? Or were you pretty much left to pursue it alone?

No one helped me with music. Everyone was against it. I had to learn it alone.

Your last album, Sousoume Tamachek, was quiet and relaxed and subdued. Ilana: The Creator, on the other hand, is loud and coursing with electricity. Why did you decide to go from one end of the sonic spectrum to the other?

In Tuareg music, there is acoustic music that is quiet, and there is electric music that we play in weddings. With Sousoume, I wanted to play some older songs, and they were created for this environment. With Ilana, I wanted to show more of what I play in weddings.

Your audience around the world is getting bigger quickly. What do you think it is about your music that appeals to people, no matter where they're from?

Our music has something in it that people find familiar. They can feel it even when they don’t understand it.

Ilana was the first time you recorded in a real studio with a full band. How do you think those two things — the real studio, the full band — affected these songs and/or performances?

With this album, we were able to capture a more live recording that shows how we play at home in weddings.

In your opinion, what is the most important element of a song?

For me, the most important are the lyrics. In my tradition, music is used to transmit a message.

When you sing on Ilana, are you singing in [the Tuareg dialect] Tamashek or some other language or dialect? What are these songs about?

I’m singing in Tamashek. The songs are about life in the desert. Ilana means “the creator” in English, and is a prayer we are sending to out to help the poor women and children who are suffering in the desert.

Is success in America important to you? If so, why?

I want to make people happy. I also want to help people learn about where we come from.

Mdou Moctar, with Galleries and Kwantsu Dudes, 8 p.m. Monday, April 8, Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street, $15 to $19.

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