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Mdou Moctar Is An Unlikely Rock Star

The Tuareg guitarist redefines what it means to play rock ’n’ roll in 2019


Photo: Kentaro Murai

Mdou Moctar isn’t a rock star by our stereotypical Western definitions, but his background would seem to suggest otherwise. The Niger-born guitarist and songwriter, who plays a modern, psychedelic update of Tuareg music in the vein of Tinariwen or Bombino, went viral early in his career when his self-released 2008 album, Anar, began to circulate from cell phone to cell phone in Africa’s Sahel region, later having some of it end up on the Music from Saharan Cellphones: Volume 1 collection. Yet most listeners on this side of the Atlantic likely didn’t hear of Moctar’s music until he reprised the role of Prince’s The Kid in a remake of Purple Rain, set in Niger, titled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which translates to “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red In It.” Tamajeq, the language spoken by the Tuareg people, doesn’t have a word for purple.

If you ask me, starring as the main character of any iteration of Purple Rain automatically makes you a rock star, even if the music you play isn’t rock as most of us in the states know it. Not that such definitions are easy to come by when listening to a record like Ilana (The Creator), which Moctar released last month via Sahel Sounds. The language might not be a familiar tongue, and the melodies might stray far from the pentatonic scale. But to hear the wild guitar solos and nasty grooves of a song like “Tarhatazed” is to hear the sound of rock ’n’ roll at its most powerful and pure.

Indeed, Ilana rocks. It rocks psychedelically (“Kamane Tarhanin”). It rocks hypnotically (“Anna”). It rocks joyously (“Wiwasharnine”). The official name for what Moctar plays is Tishoumaren, a Northern African style of electric blues that grew out of the sociopolitical struggles of the Tuareg people. It’s not exclusively protest music, though there’s an element of that to it. It’s incredibly rich music, with lots of intricate sounds to unravel.

But when you get right down to it, whether or not the experience or language is universal, the feeling of it is. Much like how Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” feels like a country song, even if Billboard hasn’t treated it as such, Ilana (The Creator) feels like a rock album.

Mdou Moctar
April 21
The Casbah


Other Recommended Shows This Week:

Freedom Rider: An Art Blakey Celebration (April 20, Copley Symphony Hall): Art Blakey was one of the most important jazz drummers of the 20th century, and for what would have been his 100th birthday, the San Diego Symphony is paying tribute to the artistic giant. Here’s hoping they do the “Drum Thunder Suite.”

This Includes You! with Pinback, El Ten Eleven (April 20, Music Box): Members of the local music community are coming together to raise money for Special Education programs at the Museum School. It’s a good cause, with sets from hometown greats. Everybody wins.

The Strawberry Moons (April 23, Belly Up): On the note of local bands, one to keep your eyes and ears on is The Strawberry Moons. The group features current and former members of Shake Before Us and The Burning of Rome, and their diverse pop sound is infectious.

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