The first guitar Mdou Moctar ever played was made from pieces of wood and the brakes of a bicycle. Now, he travels the world performing his psychedelic tunes.
Growing up in the small village of Tchintabaradene, Niger, Moctar never heard Western music. His family and village were very religious, and did not like music. Moctar first heard music from a Tuareg guitarist, Abdallah Oumbadougou. The playing inspired Moctar, and he hoped to one-day play like him. But because of the village’s dislike of music, Moctar had no idea where to get a guitar to play like his idol. They sold no musical instruments in his village.
“So I had to build one myself.” Moctar said. “It only had five strings.”
Practicing his strumming on the homemade instrument, Moctar honed his craft. In sections of West Africa, cell phones are used as portable multimedia devices instead of standard computers. This leads to an independent and underground system of cell phone-to-cell phone music and file sharing. Moctar shared some of his demos this way, and his music spread.
An American man, Christopher Kirkley, who founded the record label Sahel Sounds, called Moctar in Niger and told him he heard his music while in Mali. He was impressed by Moctar’s playing and had been searching for the artist behind the music for some time.
“I didn’t believe it,” Moctar said. “I thought it was one of my cousins playing a joke on me.”
Kirkley was living in Kidal, some 300 miles away from Tchintabaradene, when he heard Moctar’s music. The auto tuned version of Moctar’s song “Tahoultine” was a popular favorite among Kidal’s locals.
“It seemed everyone had a copy on their cellphone, but no one knew who the artist was. His music became kind of an obsession for me,” Kirkley said.
His intense search for Moctar lead him to sending out hundreds of Facebook messages around the Tahoua area, which includes the towns of Tchintabaradene and Abalak, where Moctar lived. Kirkley messaged anyone in Tahoua with a guitar in their profile picture.
Kirkley finally found Moctar’s phone number and called, eager to work with him. Moctar began recording his debut studio album in his hometown with Kirkley in 2012. That first album, “Alfelan,” was released in 2013. It is a combination of modern psychedelic rock and traditional North African music, known as Tichumaren. Moctar’s music is very heavily influenced by music of the ’60s and ’70s, psychedelic tunes. His guitar sounds are lively and upbeat, channeling Jimi Hendrix.
“I play Tuareg music,” Moctar said. “My music always has a message.”
The Tuareg are an ethnic group who inhabit northern Africa, including parts of Niger, Mali, Libya, and Algeria.
Moctar talks about real-world issues, such as politics and survival, in his songs. Some of the messages in his music are about colonialism, and the hardships of women and children. Moctar also discusses his native religion of Islam.
“I want to show the world that being a Muslim has nothing to do with being a terrorist, that the religion we practice is a religion of peace,” Moctar said. “I’m not a politician, but there are political things in my music.”
What makes Moctar stand out against other artists is his original songwriting and production. Moctar likes to push his style and create “outside of the box,” composing styles unlike his previous sounds.
Not only does he play Tuareg ethnic/language rock music, he also pulls from artists who inspire him such as Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.
Moctar is currently on a coast-to-coast U.S. tour for his newest album “IIana (The Creator).”
“[He is] representative of Niger, but also risk taking,” Kirkley said. “He’s also a real artist, outside of just music, and incorporates a creative vision into all that he does.”
Moctar will play at 191 Toole Monday April 22, 2019. His new album is out now via Sahel Sounds.
Briannon Wilfong is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.