When Mdou Moctar was 17, he decided he wanted his own guitar. There were just two obstacles. Firstly, the music he wanted to play was antithetical to the wishes of his strict Muslim parents. Secondly, growing up in Agadez, a town in the West African country of Niger whose main source of income stems from nearby uranium mines, guitars were hard to come by. So he did what any resourceful, rebellious teen should do: he built one.
“There was no internet, I didn’t even have a phone,” says Mdou, speaking from Niger via a French translator. “No one showed me how to do it. I just figured out the idea in my own way.”
The acoustic guitar he built was rough and ready, constructed from salvaged wood, bicycle brake cables and the key from a can of sardines. Its fretboard was so narrow that he could only fit five strings on it.
That instrument was dust in the Saharan wind a long time ago, but at the time it did the job it was meant to, and that’s all that matters. Nearly two decades on, the journey that began with that spark of youthful intent has brought Mdou to the attention of the wider world.
The Tuareg singer and guitarist’s sixth album, Afrique Victime (released on hip US label Matador, home of Queens Of The Stone Age) is an electrifying hybrid of traditional West African music and American and European rock; call it desert blues, or Saharan psychedelia.
“I started playing because I love to play,” says Mdou. “I really love to make people happy, and playing music seemed to work. When I started, I never thought for one minute that I’d become famous. Not in Niger or anywhere.”
Mdou is not the first Tuareg musician to rise to international prominence, Mali’s Tinariwen and fellow Agadez singer and guitarist Bombino both paved the way for him. But Mdou’s intensity sets him apart. Not for nothing has he been called the ‘Hendrix Of The Sahara’, a comparison that manages to be simultaneously glib (he’s Black, lefthanded and plays a Stratocaster) and accurate (it frequently does sound like he’s doing things with a guitar that few people have heard before).
It’s easy to over-romanticise Mdou’s story, but his has been an unlikely rise by any standards. Growing up, he heard little Western pop or rock on the radio. Instead his formative years were soundtracked by the traditional takamba music popular at Nigerien weddings. But it would be Tinariwen and his big hero, guitarist Abdallah Oumbadougou, who jump-started his own musical ambitions. Home-made guitar in hand, he graduated from serenading friends in the street to playing a local festival in 2005.
“I didn’t take it seriously because I’d only been used to playing in front of twenty people,” he says. His debut album, 2008’s Amar, a lo-fi mix of guitar, DIY electronics and vocodered vocals, became a grass-roots hit in West Africa, shared from phone to phone via Bluetooth and memory sticks.
In 2011, one of his songs was featured on a compilation, Music From Saharan Cellphones, compiled by Chris Kirkley of US label Sahel Sounds. Kirkley helped bring Mdou to an entirely new audience. The pair also worked together on 2014’s semiautobiographical movie Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, a low-budget, high-ambition homage to Prince’s Purple Rain.
Prince isn’t the only American musician Mdou admires. There’s Jimi Hendrix, naturally, and Eddie Van Halen. He only discovered the latter on tour in the US a few years ago, after someone suggested he check out a video of Van Halen playing.
“After seeing him, I did develop my own tapping style,” he says, referring to the innovative technique that Eddie popularised.
All those influences are in the mix, yet Afrique Victime sounds like no one else but Mdou Moctar. Flipping between pyrotechnic guitar detonations and trancelike ballads, it evokes both the chaos of the town and the tranquillity of the desert. Mdou talks about being inspired by “what nature offers me, what I’m able to see in my environment”.
Religion and spirituality fuel his songs too. A practising Muslim, he’s observing Ramadan when we speak (despite his success, his parents still frown on his chosen career). Like all his albums, Afrique Victime is sung entirely in Tamasheq. Yet the emotion in his voice is clear, not least on the title track, where his pain and rage transcends language barriers. The song finds him addressing France’s post-colonial legacy in Africa head-on.
“Supposedly, France has given independence to its ex-colonies, but it’s only on paper,” he says, the anger in his voice rising. “France is still pulling the strings behind many things that are happening here. Whenever our leaders don’t want to go in line with what’s best for France economically, they’ll facilitate instability and indirectly finance mercenaries.”
He explains that France gains money and political power from the region’s uranium mines, even though the majority of Niger’s population don’t have access to electricity. He mentions a recent attack by the militant Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, in which 215 civilians – including children – were murdered.
“The country didn’t know about this kind of instability before France arrived,” he spits. “But who’s giving these people weapons and training and strategy? Even though they are all nomads who didn’t get any formal education.”
He’s not sure his music can change anything on a geo-political level, but he is putting his money where his mouth is on a local one. The success of his albums has enabled him to build wells in his home town to enable people to get clean drinking water.
“And I would love to be able to build a school for girls, so that they can have access to education,” he says. Just as importantly, he’s become an ambassador for Niger, and for Tuareg culture.
“It’s my way of transmitting messages to the world about what’s happening around me, whether it be corruption or terrorism or injustice or love,” he says. “Music is my weapon.”