Mdou Moctar’s transition from solo artist to full band brings an added depth to already expert musicianship.
The Saharan Shredder, Mahamadou Souleymane aka Mdou Moctar (also the lately-formed full band’s moniker), returns with his sixth studio album, Afrique Victime, recorded largely during small breaks in his tour for previous record Ilana (The Creator). This latest sticks largely with the Tuareg guitar stylings of the previous albums, with an increased focus on innovative jams and psych rock hooks that settle deep in your brain.
The album opens with a fast-paced riff, leading directly into the band’s familiar call-and-response style vocals on “Chismiten,” a track immediately suggesting an urgency that will follow across the album. The drums’ pacing is intentionally speedy, the impression something like a revving car before a street race. While the raucous drumbeat is a driving force behind the song, its energy soon gives way to the track’s ultimate star, its soaring guitar, gliding through the song not unlike the eagle pictured on the album’s cover. The self-taught artist’s style of open-fingered strumming lends a unique edge to his tracks, a sharpness that cuts through but also complements all other sounds, and it keeps attention of this intended focal point as tracks like “Tailat,” “Ya Habibti,” and “Afrique Victime” are raced through. But amidst these cuts are others that are distinctly vocals-forward, like album highlights “Tala Tannam” and “Layla,” where the sound is filled out by epic, unified group harmonies. It’s in these precise, complex stylings that Mdou Moctar separate themselves from bands like Tinariwen, who occupy a similar space of desert blues-style music. That’s not a knock on the latter, but to say — without exaggeration — that no one is making music like Mdou Moctar right now, which is what makes Afrique Victime a compelling listen. This instinct for singularity also reflects Souleymane’s philosophy and is what drives the frontman to continue making music; in a number of interviews, he has articulated his distaste for studio overproduction, feeling that it lessens the listening experience to have someone manipulating what’s already been recorded. Instead, both in his recordings and live work, he opts for an improvisational sound that keeps listeners guessing from note to note — the spirit of his work somewhere on the spectrum next to jazz and jam — riffing on a broken-down two or three chords per song.
Moctar’s story is known: beginning as a young kid in Niger whose parents thought playing electric guitar was sinful, the musician’s recordings started to gain traction on the cell phone trading networks of the mid-aughts. Like any who face such conservative circumstances, he was going to need to evolve and innovate to make it out of his small town. Afrique Victime is only his second album with a full band, but that knowledge and instinct remains ever-present, the music boasting as much surprise as it does expert, memorable musicianship.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 2.