Last May, I got an email from friend-of-EarthQuaker (and master flangeman) Matt Sweeney, that read:
“I can’t think of a more worthy endorsee for EQD than Tuareg phenom Mdou Moctar, who is on tour right now in the USA. He and his band blew the roof off of the spot in Brooklyn last night. People going apeshit.”
As we love to go apeshit here, my curiosity was piqued, and I Googled Mdou Moctar. As much amazing music as we are introduced to here every day, it’s rare to hear something totally unique, but that day, I had. Moctar’s Tuareg music was like nothing I’d heard before. New rhythms – well, new to me, but based on ancient music - incredibly intricate finger picking and fast and fluid lead lines, all set against a beautifully solid rhythm player and bassist. Moctar sings in Tamashek, a Tuareg language, and the vocals complement the music in such a way as to be almost hypnotic. As Moctar says, it’s the sound of the desert.
Anna Blumenthal: The biography on your website reads: Growing up in an area where secular music was all but prohibited, he taught himself to play on a homemade guitar cobbled together out of wood. It was years before he found a “real” guitar and taught himself to play in secret. How and when did you decide to start playing guitar? Who was your inspiration?
Mdou Moctar: At the beginning I started to play guitar because I wanted to be a star and famous. When I listen to music, I feel something, it’s like a chemical, and it’s the same when I play the music. I can’t explain the feeling. I started to play when I was 12.
AB: Secular music being almost prohibited in Niger, what kinds of consequences or punishment were you facing if your secular music was discovered?
MM: It’s not in all of Niger that music is being prohibited. It’s just in my family because my family is very religious, we practice Islam. Nobody in my family plays music. At the beginning when I started to play music my family was thinking I will become a bad person, someone into drugs and alcohol, but that’s not true.
AB: Can you talk a little about what Tuareg music is, and what are the musical building blocks or key elements that make it what it is?
MM: The sound of Tuareg music is the sound of the desert. The music sounds like where I’m living. The drums are the rhythms of the camels.
AB: Your take on Tuareg music is particularly unique, by incorporating drum machines, synths and auto-tune. At what point did you start to incorporate these instruments and tools?
MM: In 2008 I went to Nigeria to record my first album Anar which was the first Tuareg recording with autotune. I am just so curious and wanted to see what it would sound like to play the Tuareg style with autotune.
AB: When did you start touring outside of Niger?
MM: The first time I played outside of Niger was my first Europe tour in 2014.
AB: What kind of reactions did you get when you started touring outside of Niger?
MM: People like music and I am very happy when I see people who are happy and dancing at my concert. It gives me energy to play.
AB: Has your music changed in any way, as you’ve started touring all over the world?
MM: I hear a lot of different types of music on tour and different styles being played on guitar. We listen to a lot of music in the van too, like Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen. I love when Van Halen plays in the tapping style. I am trying to mix that in my music.
AB: Your new album, Ilana: The Creator comes out March 29 on Sahel Sounds. Can you talk about the meaning of the album title?
MM: Ilana means The Creator in Tamashek, my language, the language of the Tuareg people. The word means bigger than god, the one who created everything.
AB: What themes or ideas do you like to cover in your lyrics?
MM: I talk about love, religion, Tuareg culture and the rebellion.
AB: What is your current rig – guitars, amps, drum machines, synths, and pedals?
MM: My band is Ahmoudou Madassane who plays rhythm guitar and sings, Mikey Coltun who plays bass, and Souleymane Ibrahim who plays the drums. With my Fender Stratocaster I use a D’Addario pedal tuner, Boss OD-3, EarthQuaker Devices Hoof and Bellows, Electro-Harmonix Bad Stone, Boss DD-6 which runs stereo into two Roland Jazz Chorus 120s. I use D’Addario strings.
AB: What kind of access to gear do you have in Niger? Do you have to look elsewhere for gear?
MM: We don’t have the places to buy the strings or anything like that. When I come to the United States, I get strings and amps to bring back home with me.
AB: When did you start using guitar pedals, and what role have they played in shaping your sound?
MM: In 2017 I got my first pedal. I like that I can get more sounds out of the guitar with pedals.
AB: What’s your writing process?
MM: I’m not a musician that takes my time and writes it on paper. For beginning I need my space. During the day I will write music, and in the night I will play it at a wedding. Right now, when I feel something or hear something in my head, I will try to remember it or I record it onto my phone. Slowly I practice it and it becomes a new song. Also, during soundcheck I write songs with my band. I hear something and then everyone plays with me, it’s like we are all one person.
AB: Are there Tuareg artists who’ve been an inspiration to you, and are there international artists who inspire you?
MM: I love Abdallah Oumbadougou. He is a Tuareg guitarist and singer from my village. I also like Bombino and Takamba music, the traditional Tuareg music.
AB: Is there anything in particular you’d like international audiences to know about you and your music?
MM: I love to make people happy with my music.
Mdou Moctar will be touring the United States through late summer 2019.
Band photos by Cem Misirlioglu.
DEVICES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.