Home Music Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime

Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime

Niger’s Mdou Moctar has long been one of the brightest luminaries of the current generation of Tuareg desert blues musicians thanks to his incendiary guitar style that favors sidewinding lines of shimmeringly distorted notes and uses power chords more as a momentary embellishment than a foundation. Like many of his peers, Moctar honed his craft through incessant gigging at everything from normal concerts to weddings, and he gained notoriety through the common practice of trading music via cellphone memory cards. Moctar’s studio output has always consisted more of melodic outlines for live expansion than the end product of intense honing, though over time his LPs have shown increased compositional and stylistic experimentation and sophistication. As such, it should come as no surprise that Afrique Victime is his most ambitious and accomplished studio album to date, not coincidentally because it is the one that sounds closest to his live show.

Each Moctar album has found the guitarist incorporating more and more styles into his repertoire, and out of the gate Afrique Victime leans hard into the artist’s spin on ‘80s guitar heroics. Opener “Chismiten” rolls out gently on Moctar’s cascading, brittle guitar line before rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane lurches in and the song briefly turns into pure heavy metal. Even when the guitarists fall back into twinkling fills to leave space for Moctar’s vocals, they regularly crash back together, their tumbling lines forming a knot with each other as Souleymane Ibrahim’s marching drumbeat. Eventually, Moctar unleashes an incendiary solo that dances over the fretboard as the band crests to a thundering wall of sound that shoves his own playing forward. That same approach recurs on “Asdikte Akal” in the album’s back half, which brings Mikey Coltun’s humming bass more to the forefront as the guitars buzz with post-punk noise that spikes out into sinewy, danceable scales. Adding Eddie Van Halen-esque tapping to his style, Moctar only deepens the complexity of his effervescent soloing.

Though Moctar’s Tamasheq lyrics require translation for most listeners, the urgency of his voice conveys the rage and pain that lurk within these dazzling displays. On the title track, he recounts the legacy of colonial violence upon his homeland, singing “Africa is a victim of so many crimes/ If we stay silent it will be the end of us,” and he despairingly keeps asking “Why is this happening? What is the reason behind this?” Even so, a vein of hope runs through the song, noting “From prison to Nobel Prize, they ceded to Mandela,” and over the course of the track’s epic seven minutes, Moctar’s minimal accompaniment blossoms into a crunching groove as Coltun and Ibrahim locking in place to give Moctar the space to absolutely erupt into a frantic climbing solo as Madassane falls into step with Coltun as the two speed up precipitously. Eventually, the song slams into something close to punk rock, as Moctar’s guitar begins to howl between blistering fast runs that never lapse into dry technical wizardry but instead snarl with pent-up anguish.

Sonically and thematically, there is also great variety here. “Taliat” turns Ibrahim’s skittering snare hits into handclaps as the guitars shimmer and burble like water. It sounds like the kind of neo-psychedelia that Prince tossed off in his string of post-Purple Rain ‘80s albums, complex in instrumentation but bright and melodic enough to lean into the pop side of head music, and its ode to women and heartbreak shakes up the artist’s laments for the effects of colonialism and the longing for home. Similarly, “Ya Habibti” and “Tala Tannam” employ acoustic guitars to create chiming ballads that envelop the listener; the latter in particular uses its nimble patterns to reflect its wistful romance, and sunny warmth imbues the song.

“Layla” is a reminder of the role that traditional African music played in shaping American blues, the percussive acoustic guitar stabbing at chords in sharp, emotive pangs over which the band chants elegiacally. Gradually, electronic sounds start to layer over the simple arrangement, making it denser and more chaotic until a single electric guitar note bursts from the maelstrom as if it achieved escape velocity. Closer “Bismilahi Atagah” recapitulates the energy and calm that oscillate throughout the record, employing acoustic guitars at a mid-tempo trot that is subtly upended by Coltun’s prominent, growling basslines. Ibrahim’s clapping percussion surrounds the guitarists to add a sing-along vibe to the gentle, cooing vocals. On an album where even the most sedate tracks reveal a dense interplay of musicians and mastery of instruments, its elegance ends Afrique Victime on a soft, relaxed parting note, as if sending the listener back into the world well-rested.

At long last capturing on wax the full range of his talent, Mdou Moctar crafts the first great guitar album of the ‘20s with this urgent, incandescent roar of desert rock.
85 %
Scorching and refined
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