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Mdou Moctar’s Guitar Is a Screaming Siren Against Africa’s Colonial Legacy

EntertainmentMdou Moctar’s Guitar Is a Screaming Siren Against Africa’s Colonial Legacy


The problems of Niger, a landlocked desert nation in West Africa, may be little known to most Americans, and Google Translate is no help when it comes to Tamasheq, the Tuareg language that Moctar sings in (along with some French). But it could be time for Moctar to get his message heard widely. “Funeral for Justice,” his seventh LP, is the second one released by Matador Records, an indie-rock powerhouse with a legacy of acts like Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Liz Phair. Last summer, Moctar and his band performed at Central Park SummerStage, and earlier this month they played at Coachella, alongside stars like Lana Del Rey and Tyler, the Creator.

“I want to be calling out crimes or injustice in the world, and I want you to feel like the sound you’re hearing is someone calling out, ‘Help!’” he said. “If you hear a siren going ‘wee-oo, wee-oo,’ that tells you that something terrible is happening, right? So I want you to know how serious this is.”

MOCTAR’S ORIGINS ARE about as far from the Coachella stage as you can get.

He grew up in Tchintabaraden, near Niger’s western border with Mali, with minimal knowledge of Western pop culture. He said he was aware of Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and Celine Dion but knew little about them, calling them all “white,” which he defined as meaning “not from my hometown.” (“But Michael Jackson,” Moctar added with a sly smile, “when I see him, he is not dark, right?”)

Moctar built his first guitar using brake wires from a bicycle, and by the late 2000s he was tinkering with the fundamentals of desert blues — the sound the Tuaregs are known for — blending guitars with electronic tools like Auto-Tune and drum machines. One such hybrid track, “Tahoultine,” became a regional underground hit when people traded it via cellphones. In 2010, the tune made its way to Christopher Kirkley, an American who had quit his tech job and was traveling in West Africa and blogging about its musical culture.

Back home in Portland, Ore., Kirkley was fascinated by “Tahoultine,” but the song’s author was a mystery, identified on the track only as “Mdou” (pronounced EM-doo). After a year of online sleuthing, Kirkley finally made contact with Moctar and traveled back to Niger to meet him and discuss working together. One of the first things Moctar said to him, Kirkley recalled, was, “How do I get to tour?”

Kirkley became Moctar’s promoter, making five albums with Moctar on his small label, Sahel Sounds, and helping organize his first tours in Europe. In 2015, Kirkley raised $18,000 on Kickstarter to direct Moctar in a Tuareg remake of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” casting Moctar as a motorcycle-riding guitar rebel struggling to make his mark. Its title was “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,” or “Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It” — Tamasheq, Moctar told Kirkley, has no word for purple.



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