Making a living as a musician often means a life of wandering. Mdou Moctar is a guitarist from Niger, the desert country in north central Africa that borders Algeria, Mali, Chad, Libya, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Benin. It’s a huge country, and its cultural connections extend in a web of different directions, like the ancient trade routes that traversed the desert connecting West Africa with Egypt, Ethiopia and ultimately the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Moctar is a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, a traditionally nomadic people with populations in Niger and most of the surrounding countries, particularly Mali, and elsewhere. Moctar has done a fair bit of wandering, too; he’s lived in Algeria, Libya, and spent time in Nigeria as well. This fall finds the guitarist touring America for the first time. Triad residents have the opportunity to see Mdou Moctar when he plays Winston-Salem’s Monstercade on Oct. 11.
In recent years, Tuareg guitar music has been reaching Western listeners in waves. Bands and artists like Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, have introduced music fans to the hypnotic pleasures of loping rhythms, slithering guitar lines, raspy vocal styles, call-and-response patterns and hypnotic drones of Tuareg music. Other artists like the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure and, more recently, Songhoy Blues have popularized music from different ethnic groups but with similar and related styles and history. Mdou Moctar is part of this tradition.
Much of this music gets labeled desert blues, as a sort of taxonomical shorthand that spans ethnic groups and national borders. The designation is complicated and potentially confusing. While the blues of the Mississippi Delta most certainly evolved from the aesthetics brought to America by enslaved Africans, in the same way, that musical styles continued to evolve and morph in North America based on migration, cross-cultural interaction, technological development and individual genius. One must understand that the same is true of music in Africa. The music being played in the remote desert today isn’t necessarily the same music that would have been played 400 years ago.
One of the things that have made the desert blues so fascinating to American ears is that this is music that has soaked up blues, rock and pop from the U.S. and Europe. It can sound strangely familiar and deeply exotic at the same time. Many of these artists are fans of John Lee Hooker, Santana, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix and more recent popular music as well. That sound filters into the recordings. In the case of Moctar’s music, there’s the guitar pyrotechnics, with flickering ornamental riffs, howling bent notes and stomping beats, but he’s also incorporated pitch-altering AutoTune technology that’s become popular in hip-hop and pop. (AutoTune has become widely used in the region due, in large part, to the attempts to emulate popular Bollywood soundtracks in the music for films in the prolific movie industry of northern Nigeria.)
Moctar’s music was very popular throughout parts of Niger and West Africa, but it’s come to the attention of non-African audiences in large part through the efforts of Christopher Kirkley, who runs the Portland, Oregon-based label Sahel Sounds, which has released Moctar’s albums. Moctar was first featured on the label’s 2011 compilation “Music from Saharan Cellphones,” which brought attention to a whole emerging genre of digital/traditional music in West Africa. Kirkley also helped make the 2015 movie Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which is a sort of remake of the iconic Prince film Purple Rain set in the world of Tuareg guitar, starring Moctar, who also made the soundtrack recording. (The title translates to “rain the color blue with a little red in it,” since there’s no word for “purple” in the Tamasheq language.)
Moctar’s newest album, “Sousoume Tamachek,” just came out in September. It was recorded in Portland, using a simple studio set-up, with Moctar playing all the parts — guitars, calabash percussion, voice and backing vocals.
“He has a lot of older compositions that were never released, and they’re really beautiful songs, so I suggested to him that it would be nice to do some nice versions of them,” said Kirkley, who’s traveling with Moctar and his backing band, another guitarist and a drummer. I spoke with Kirkley recently as the group made its way from Minnesota to New York’s Hudson Valley.
The music that Moctar plays is often performed at weddings in Niger, but, because live music was somewhat discouraged in the religious part of the country where he lived, the guitarist practiced his playing at informal gatherings, such as picnics. This encouraged a slower, more subdued style, like that showcased on the recent record.
Kirkley, 37, started the label in 2011 after a few trips to West Africa, and he said he hopes that each project just fosters more curiosity and more creativity.
“It wasn’t ever intended to be a commercial venture, and I consider to be more of a long-term collective than a record label,” Kirkley said. “It’s about communicating ideas between cultures and playing with that. Each record is really just an opportunity to engage in that discussion.”
They’ve recently finished shooting another film, a sort of spaghetti western set in the African desert, with one of Moctar’s bandmates. The project fits into the label’s wide-frame ethos.
“At the core, it’s a conversation between these different cultures and how we can create art that can transcend that,” Kirkley said. “My interest is not just within music. I want the music to be an opportunity for other people to follow the same path of sort of dismantling exoticism and an opportunity to learn more about a place.”
See Mdou Moctar at Monstercade, located at 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 9 p.m. The cost is $10, call 336-893-8591 for more information.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.