LIVE: Mdou Moctar @ Komedia, Brighton

Tuareg guitar hero Moctar showcased why he is at the heart of desert blues' western popularisation.
Posted: 8 April 2022 Words: Caspar Latham Photos: Andrew Hasson

While the world struggled through a series of lockdowns in 2020, bassist Mike Coltun traveled to Niger to join his bandmates Mdou Moctar, Ahmoudou Madassane and Souleymane Ibrahim to prepare for the release of their debut album with Matador Records, Afrique Victim. Disappointed by the cancellation of concerts across Niger, and confined to the area around the capital, the group packed their gear into a car and drove to an area on the bank of the Niger river, which flows through Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. The result was a generator-powered performance filmed at dawn. Other performances from this period include low key concerts in a friend’s yard on the outskirts of Niamey, which attracted a large crowd from the town over the course of three nights. Since these performances and the release of Afrique Victime, the band have had a growing influence in the west with their current tour of Europe including a high energy performance at Brighton’s Komedia.

Mdou Moctar create a unique blend of Tuareg influences with modern rock music. Singing in the Tamashek language, Mahamadou Souleymane plays guitar in the takamba and assouf (or ‘desert blues’) styles. Growing up in the mining town of Arlit, located between the Sahara Desert and the Ait Mountains, he was also subjected to Western influences such as the music of rock guitarist Van Halen, using bicycle cables to build his first electric guitar. In their performance at Brighton’s Komedia, this eclectic combination of influences was palpable. Heavily distorted guitar solos on a white Stratocaster contrasted with immensely disciplined rhythms and intricate Tuareg vocal melodies. Apparently uncontrolled lead guitar parts switched into bridge sections and accelerating rhythms, showing a dedication to their craft that has paid off in tight onstage synchronisation. 

The performance included a number of tracks from their album Afrique Victimeincluding “Tala Tannam”, “Bismillahi Atagh” and “Chismiten”. Unlike the studio versions of the songs, acoustic guitar parts were replaced with blaring distortion and rapid, driving drum rhythms. Mike Coltun’s bass lines stood out in this context, with extended repetitions of one line in the final performance of the set reaching the level of trance-inducing. Although these highly charged renditions of the songs worked well for an electrified crowd in Brighton, a lot of subtlety was buried in distortion in a live context. The set would have benefitted from a variation in tone for one or two tracks, or an EQ raising the vocals over the lead guitar which occasionally drowned out other parts. Nevertheless, the set was otherwise flawlessly executed.

Since their initial success through viral cell-phone music trading networks across the Sahel, Mdou Moctar have gone from strength to strength. Following on from the popularisation of desert blues by artists such as Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen, Mdou Moctar sits alongside musicians such as Bombino and Vieux Farka Toure in a new generation of artists bringing this music to a global audience. It will be interesting to see what this new fusion of tuareg and western influences will add to the thriving North and Central African music scene in future. 

Afrique Victime is out now via Matador Records.

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