Mdou Moctar: The Tuareg Guitar Virtuoso Brings The Desert To The West (Cover Story)

Mdou Moctar
Cem Misirlioglu
– Mdou Moctar
On the cover

Sometimes it takes the unusual to remind us of the universal. Initially, the average concertgoer might not expect to relate much to Mdou Moctar, the lanky, left-handed guitar slinger born Mahamadou Souleymane, who hails from and and is currently based in the West African Saharan desert village of Agadez, Niger, and who performs dressed in traditional Tuareg clothing and sings in Tamasheq. 

That is, until he starts playing. The guitarist’s style, an otherworldly take on the Fender six-string featuring blistering, swirling Eastern-influenced melodies drenched in reverb, is full of vibrant energy and offers a familiar yet fresh blend of psychedelic rock and desert blues – and you can boogie to it, too. 
“This music is wedding music, but it’s super raw, amps turned way past 11, it’s loud, it’s gritty,” says Mikey Coltun, bassist and producer for Mdou Moctar, whose regular commute includes trips to Niger. “We bring up this ‘rock’ thing, and at first, the guys are like, ‘What is rock? This is just what we do.’”
 “Seeing Mdou Moctar’s vision of rock music is incredible,” adds Another Management Company’s Daniel Oestreich. “It’s not exactly the same as the rock music you and I or Mikey grew up with, but it is. Getting to put that out there and have it be represented in the way they want it to be, to get to play with bands that highlight it and make interesting bills, it’s fulfilling and great to see it. It’s what all bands that have a vision for themselves deserve to get to do.”
Mdou Moctar
Johnny Louis / Getty Images
– Mdou Moctar
Mdou Moctar opening for Tame Impala May 7, 2019, at Fillmore Miami Beach in Florida. The opening dates were some of the band’s biggest performances yet.

After releasing the acclaimed Ilana: The Creator in 2019, Mdou Moctar moved to Matador Records and released Afrique Victime in May, both a sonic and social achievement with Moctar himself able to delve into lyrical themes on love, religion, inequality and colonialism’s impact on West Africa.

“I’m really happy, because with the album, I need to send a message, but I can’t get it all out by only writing my album,” Moctar says from Niger, adding that his country hasn’t had many coronavirus cases but that terrorists and the government have taken advantage of lockdowns, preventing meetings, mosque worship and weddings.  “As for the tour, I’m very excited, it’s been a long time in my country, and I’m happy to see my fans.” While saying it’s simply his job to perform and that he’s more than willing to travel the world to bring joy to music fans, Moctar and his band have put in real work on the road. 
They did around 200 shows in 2019, including opening slots for Tame Impala, gigs at festivals including Desert Daze and New Orleans Jazz Fest and regular headlining club dates. 
“Tame Impala was a big one for us, and probably the biggest shows we’ve ever played,” says Coltun of a short run of shows the band did with the Australian psych headliners in 2019. “Also, signing to Matador was a big thing for us, a reassuring look for us as a big rock band. That’s kind of the perfect fit and a label you want to be on.”
“They’re definitely no strangers to touring here,” says Ground Control Touring’s Jim Romeo, U.S. booking agent for Mdou Moctar, who has booked two previous tours for the band.
The upcoming Mdou Moctar tour, which kicks off in September at Bonnaroo, became feasible once the Tennessee megafest confirmed.
“Finally, we said everything looks like it’s good and let’s move forward,” Romeo says. “Definitely the audience is there, it’s selling quickly.” The strong onsale led to second nights at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg and L.A.’s Lodge Room.  “I didn’t want to over-book it, based on everything that was going on at the time, so we kind of stuck with what we were going to play last year and kept some dates open to add more,” says Romeo. Sold-out gigs include two nights in Portland (Mississippi Studios), San Francisco (The Chapel) and Denver (Globe Hall). Other notable stops include the Desert Daze pre-party series at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, Calif. 
“It’s exciting, nerve-wracking and confusing all at once,” says Oestreich of getting to this point while contending with the uncertainty of COVID restrictions. “To have the tour be around Afrique Victime is really exciting, the response to the record and how that’s translated to ticket sales, the response to the tour has been doubly exciting. But it’s a testament to how hard the band has worked to build a fanbase on their own to warrant having all of us come help make it happen.” 
While Moctar stresses he’s eager to play to any audience that is interested, he’s pleased with the upcoming U.S. run, which management says will be followed by Europe in spring ‘22 and, after that, surely a busy summer.
Mdou Moctar
Cem Misirlioglu
– Mdou Moctar
Ride Share: L-R: Rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, bass guitarist and producer Michael Coltun, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim and Mahamadou “Mdou Moctar” Souleymane.
“I’m happy to have these new fans and to be able to play these new concert halls, that I’m not used to at all,” Moctar says. “I’m excited to play in these huge new places. I’ll be looking at the audience and I’m very happy about all of this. It’s definitely a major evolution.”
The initial challenge of bringing an artist like Mdou Moctar to the West is to avoid getting pigeonholed as “world music,” as many African artists are. They’ve largely succeeded.
“We’ve worked super hard from the beginning to maintain the true form of what Mdou Moctar is,” says Coltun, who worked previously with the band’s former label at Sahel Sounds before joining the band properly as bassist and producer. He  was even manager (and de-facto road manager) for a time. “I’ve been involved with West African groups that have unfortunately been grouped into this ‘world music’ category, and it sucks. It sucks for us and kind of sucks for everyone. We’re all about finding interesting promoters and making sure we’re playing for the right crowd, and it means much more to us to see younger people, a mixed crowd, dancing and such.”
Part of that appeal is the DIY ethos that shows through the band’s music and gigs, further adding to the universal messages of justice. 
“I grew up going to a lot of DIY and punk shows, and that music over there in Agadez is that,” says Coltun, who is based in New York. “It’s kind of where we all came from, that world, and it’s about keeping that tradition alive while in the U.S. and touring. No matter the size of show, with the same amount of energy. That’s super important to us.” The buzz has continued to build, with media praise for both the message and music of Afrique Victime and many comparing Moctar to Western guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix as well as one of Moctar’s chief influences, Eddie Van Halen. 
“To be honest, I don’t really see myself that way,” Moctar says when put on the spot as the next guitar hero. “To me, Mdou is someone who is constantly learning, always a beginner. I’ve never considered myself to be an international star or someone who is very famous, that’s not how I feel deep inside me, right? Of course, I’m really happy the press is encouraging me, it pushes me on, but I don’t think that’s accurate.”
However, his stage presence and performances have definitely struck a chord. 

Mdou Moctar
Kyle Gustafson / The Washington Post / Getty Images
– Mdou Moctar
Desert Blues: Mdou Moctar at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. The band’s 2021 touring kicks off with a Bonnaroo appearance in September.
“Being on stage with Mdou, the thing we talk about a lot is we feed off of each other’s energy,” says Coltun. “There’s an unreal amount of energy Mdou can give off, he’s very intuitive and sees what’s going on, when he’s just jamming or dancing or whatever. I haven’t experienced that when playing before. He has a special ability to move people.”
While the touring goal according to Oestreich is to continue playing to as many people as possible, Moctar himself isn’t ready to predict anything more than the immediate.
“In reality, I have no idea what the future holds,” says Moctar through a translator. “It was impossible for me to predict the position I’m in today. I never thought I’d become an international player, I just thought I’d be playing music for my friends and the people close to me. I have no idea how it is going to continue in the future.  What I do want on a personal level is to always be transmitting meaningful messages to people and especially letting people know what’s happening around me in my country. Also, on a more personal level, making people happy. But beyond that I really can’t tell you much, I’m afraid.”