An Interview with Mdou Moctar

Mdou Moctar is not your average tuareg musician. While Tinariwen, Desert Rebel and Bombino sing about the rebel cause with a quite western rock sound, Mdou Moctar chooses another path by singing for the tuareg youths of today. His revolutionary message is about social topics such as love, education and the daily struggles that tuareg youths face.

Ever since being discovered by Sahel Sounds label boss Christopher Kirkley a few years ago, time has moved fast for Mdou. Since then we count a few singles and two albums, of which the album ‘Anar’ a reissue which just came out on vinyl. Plus soon a semi-biographical movie about Mdou and him starring in it will be released at cinemas and festivals, taking his career one step further.

In Het Bos in Antwerp, Mdou explains how it all started: “I first met him [Christopher Kirkley of Sahel Sounds] on the mobile phone as he had called me. He had known my music for a good while which he had heard on mobile phones in Timbuktu, Mali and later also in Mauritania. He started asking around who this musician was and if anyone knew me. An older tuareg told him that the Tamasheq language in which I sang was the dialect of Niger and after a lot of asking around in Niger he finally got my number. It was a weird conversation, as I thought my cousin was pulling a joke on me so I hung up. This American guy calling me, saying he wanted to work with me for my music, it just couldn’t be real. He called me again and we talked. He came to visit me in my village and also sent me a lefthanded guitar, which is very hard to find in Niger. This guitar has crossed several African countries to arrive in my hands, I have been playing it ever since!”

Mdou started playing the guitar at a young age and as a teenager he loved the guitar play of Abdallah Oumbadougou, the guitarist and singer of Desert Rebel. The problem was that Mdou came from a family that did not love music at all and he was forbidden to play it. However, the guitar did not leave his mind and around his 14th he constructed his first guitar from a wooden board with strings of bicycle brake cables. Some years later he replaced his makeshift guitar with a real guitar that he had asked to be made in a woodshop joinery in a bigger city.

In 2002 Mdou moved to Libya in search of work and without guitar. About that period and his return he says: “During those 3 years in Libya I didn’t touch the guitar and worked hard until my return in Niger in 2005. And that while in the two years before leaving I had begun writing songs and playing these privately for all my friends who all love and supported my music very much. Everything was just starting to go well, but I was summoned by my parents to go and work in Libya, to support the family. In my third year in Libya I attended a concert by the Nigerese tuareg guitarist and singer Addani Alhousseini (once a member of Etran Finatawa). I really loved his guitarplay and voice and that was the moment of change for me. I just had to pick up the guitar as quickly as possible and I was angry with myself that I had lost these three years working without playing and writing songs. From that moment I played every day and got better by the day, started writing songs again. All this work resulted in my 1st album Anar (now reissued on Sahel Sounds and hopefully still available in OCCII at the end of the tour) which was recorded in autotune technique.”

Why autotune, readers might think? Mdou actually loved the special electronic sound of autotune music from southern neigbouring country Nigeria (as it’s dominant in hausa and nija music). Mdou explains: “No tuareg music ever existed in such an electronic autotune sound, so why wouldn’t I be the first one to record my music like this? And so he did, and he travelled with some friends to the city of Sokoto, just across the border into Nigeria. Mdou: “The funny thing was that it was very hard for Nigerian studio musicians to play my music with these rhythms and the drawn out, slow paced tuareg melodies, as they had never played tuareg music and only knew of local Nigerian music styles. Originally, the album was only meant for my friends in the village, to please the youths with my music with a modern twist to it.”

Afelan, Mdou’s second album, was initiated by Christopher of Sahel Sounds who used live recordings of various local concerts. It’s a much more classic tuareg album that balances between soft acoustic songs that leave a sweet smile and energetic rocking blast outs. A third album will appear next year on Sahel Sounds, a live album filled with faster and rocking songs as they are performed on the western tour.

Since his western audiences don’t understand what Mdou sings about in his songs, which are in Tamasheq, Mdou explains what some of his songs are about: “The song ‘Tahoultine’ is about a pretty tuareg girl and the fact that some of them abuse their beauty to get what they want and desire. ‘Tahoul’ means ‘hello’ in a respectful form and in the song I direct myself at these girls and sing to them; “hello, here I am, but your beauty does not feel sincere to me.” Beauty is only complete if it contains sincerity, honesty and love. I compare beauty with a snake; a nice creature to see, but vicious and dangerous if you don’t watch out. I sing about topics such as love, education, religion and peace but never about politics, that I don’t like to touch. I am revolutionary at heart but without the political or militant approach. In my religious songs I sing about islam not being a difficult religion. It are in fact the people themselves who make it more difficult than it should, abusing islamic laws for their own goals. Attacks on innocent people has nothing to do with religion and spirituality? Many people think the same, especially the youths and with them I talk a lot about this. The youths in our country are good thinking, the elders should listen more to them”

The tuareg ‘Ishumar’ guitar music has become quite famous here in the west, through bands like Tinariwen, Bombino and many others. “Every band has their own context and background,” Mdou says. “The music of Tinariwen is quite archaic and they were beginners on the guitar when they started. As exiles, they mostly sing about the revolution and not really about daily life in tuareg area’s. And Bombino, he takes a lot of their songs and makes them into his own version, but he is an amazingly good guitar player. My music is just different from theirs, as I write my own songs with my own topics and I rely on my own creative power. In the coming year I would like to organise a festival for the local youths, to let young musicians play together. There are just so many young talented musicians around, some of my students are so good but don’t easily get the chance outside our circles. My festival should have the goal to motivate them, them taking their first steps into the world of music and show them to the world.”

About his musical life in Niger, Mdou says: “In my own country I mostly play in the tuareg communities like Agadez and around, but hardly ever in Niamey, the capital. That’s another atmosphere altogether and it feels like everyone there wants to be European. I prefer to feel comfortable and stay loyal to my own culture instead. Niger is a complicated country with various ethnic groups but only one in power (the Zarma ethnic group). Niger is a closed country where certain ethnic groups are blocked out, on a political and on a cultural level. In some regions I might be regarded as ‘famous’ but my music is never shown on television while every second of music on television the band Tal National is shown. Even Bombino is hardly ever broadcasted, five minutes in a year would already be much, while he has become quite famous allover the world, more than in his own country.”

Later this year a feature length movie will come out on Sahel Sounds, which will be the first ever movie completely made in the Tamasheq language, titled ‘Akounak Teggdalit Taha Tazoughai’ (meaning ‘Rain The Color Of Red With A Little Blue In It’), inspired by Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ en ‘The Harder They Come’ of Jimmy Cliff. Mdou is the main actor and performer in it, as the movie is in semi-biographic style about his life and struggle to get where he is now. Mdou elaborates modestly: “The movie was purely Christopher’s idea, not mine. I had told him my whole life story and he wanted make a film of this. I am satisfied about the result and it comes close to the reality of my life, perhaps even a bit too close. I made the soundtrack and the film is now in the last stages of editing. The acting was a one time fun experience not to be repeated. I am a musician and that is what I do best.”

Monday November 24th, Mdou Moctar & band will play in OCCII. Expect an energetic rocking show from beginning to end!

By: Šeb Baššleer

Listen to Mdou Moctar’s album Anar here: