Mdou Moctar on the Recording and Meaning of "Afrique Victime"

When I called guitarist Mdou Moctar, I had no idea what was happening in his home country of Niger. Though the conversation was a bit chaotic—with the signal dropping several times and various other lines cutting in and out of our call, much like a bad AM radio transmission—the guitarist had managed to affect a cool and calm attitude throughout our 40–50 minutes of talking.

Mdou Moctar's Afrique Victime album cover
Pre-order Afrique Victime via Matador.

I asked Moctar and bassist/producer Mikey Coltun (who was talking from New York) about their new record, Afrique Victime, excited about the album and rattling off questions about the band from the comfort of my home in New Jersey.

But as we wrapped up, Moctar let me in on his mood, breaking from French—we'd been speaking via a translator—to speak to me directly in English and tell me about what is going on in Niger.

What follows is our conversation about the rip-roaring Afrique Victime, which finds Moctar and his band in the studio delivering the raw power of their intense and transcendent live performances. Moctar's guitar-playing is in top form as he leads his band with a blazing tone that soars above tight, hypnotic grooves delivered by the rhythm section of guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim, and bassist Coltun.

The dramatic conclusion of our conversation was shocking as Moctar shined light on the overwhelming conditions that his fellow Nigeriens face and the odds that the guitarist and his band face to get their music heard.

Mdou Moctar's Afrique Victime arrives May 21 on Matador Records.

Mdou, I've seen a lot of American guitar players listed as influences, but can you give me an idea who some of your more local influences are?

Mdou Moctar: I make music in my own way and in reality, I don't listen to that much classic rock. My main source of inspiration isn't really from guitar players, but as far as guitar players, the three artists I really enjoy are Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, and Prince.

I particularly like Baba Salah and Oumou Sangaré but I don't think I listen to that many other players for inspiration.

Mikey, you do a lot of international commuting to be in this band!

Mikey Coltun: I've been going to Niger once or twice a year since 2017. It's a weird thing because it's really easy for Americans to go to Niger—you just pay $200 and you get a visa—but it's really difficult for those guys to come to the US. It's months of work, it's a lot of money, and it's not guaranteed.

How did you end up playing together?

Coltun: I was aware of Tuareg music, especially Bombino stuff, and someone sent me Mdou's stuff and I started getting really into it. I reached out to the label, Sahel Sounds, and said, "How can I help bring Mdou here?" Through a lot of back and forth I set him up with a booking agent. I tour-managed on a couple dates on that first US tour and when Mdou found out I played bass, he said, "OK, you're gonna play bass with us tonight." So I borrowed a bass and played, and after that show Mdou said to come on the rest of the tour, and at the end of the tour he said to come to Niger and be his manager.

Moctar: From the very beginning of meeting Mikey, he not only played well, but he's an extremely nice person. I felt that he would help to consolidate the group and help to keep it together and never cause any tension. Originally, he was the manager and when he expressed wanting to join, I thought, "Why not?" He's a very human person who's very special and very much listening to what the band is doing and saying.

Mikey, how do you approach playing Tuareg music as a white dude from America?

Coltun: When I first started, it took a bit of time to figure out how to play Tuareg music. I was used to playing Bambara music from Mali, bubu music from Sierra Leone, and Senegalese sabar music, so this was very different.

There's groups like Tinariwen, but it's such a different style than Mdou's music. I would just try and rip off some of those lines and try to see if it would fit with Mdou's music. Some of the times it would and some of the times it would just be too fast to do that.

I started listening to what Ahmoudou [Madassane, rhythm guitarist] is doing, and he's never playing beat one, it's always the second triplet, and that's where the snare hit. So, I tried to balance with the kick being on all four, but keeping that same rhythm.

I'd double some of Mdou's lines and we'd talk about it. He'd say, "Whatever you want to do," and I'd play something and he'd give me feedback.

Moctar: Mikey knew my music just from listening to it, so that was a great tool to make it easier for him to pick up. But my music is not your average Tuareg music, the range is a bit broader, so I would sit with Mikey and explained how I function. What's also helpful is we work together on where we're heading and to form ideas.

Mdou Moctar's 2018 KEXP performance.

Mdou, it seems as though you've always had your own original version of what Tuareg music can be.

Moctar: On my first album, I wanted to try to record traditional Tuareg music with synthesizers even for the drums and voice, to see what it would sound like electronically as an experiment. Back then, Bluetooth was trending so that's how music was shared. [Ed: This album, Anar was shared widely through cell-phone sharing networks.]

The people around me told me to record something cleaner. That was Afelan, an album that I recorded on my own and I had no idea that it was going to become something and that people would listen to it, and people loved it. That was incredible to me.

Afrique Victime is a completely different recording process for me. There were way more possibilities and opportunities. We used modern studios with classy machines and professional sound engineers.

Can you tell me a bit about the recording process behind Afrique Victime?

Moctar: I actually hate studios. With all due respect to all engineers, I find it much too square. I much prefer live music.

"When you're at a concert, it's the people who are pushing you, dancing and shouting, creating an atmosphere that gets into the artist and gives you ideas and confidence and courage to produce something really incredible."

I find studios oppressive. You're extremely aware that you're being recorded and that there is no room for error and you're very static. In terms of the energy of the music, it's very hard to channel and find what you need because you're trying to find it from within yourself whereas when you're at a concert, it's the people who are pushing you, dancing and shouting, creating an atmosphere that gets into the artist and gives you ideas and confidence and courage to produce something really incredible.

We never record too many songs in a row because no way am I staying a week in a studio without taking pauses—so we spread it out over a few weeks.

Coltun: Something I learned is that Mdou and the other band members are not comfortable in the studio for a week. So, on this record, we tried playing in different studios while we were on tour on a day off. My number one thing is how do I make them feel comfortable in a studio.

We'd play one take and that's what would end up on the record. It's my job after that to take these 10-minute jams and form a song out of it. There's a Tuareg form, it's very symmetrical — there's four bars of singing, then four bars of playing, then another singing, then solo. So I was forming those jams into that recipe. They're songs, but maybe he'll sing in the first minute and then maybe again at minute nine, so I'm kind of moving it so it's more concise.

I love the way Afrique Victime sounds and, having seen you together live, to my ears it's a great representation of that experience as an audience member. Despite hating the studio process, do you feel like you were able to capture the music in a way you're satisfied with?

Moctar: Of course. I'm very satisfied with what we've produced in the studio. I'm just telling you about my personal feelings at the time, what was going on inside, but I'm very confident with what we've been able to make.

Can you tell me about the themes behind the music on Afrique Victime? What did you have in mind when you were writing this record?

I wrote the song "Afrique Victime" to talk about the victims of what is happening today. When you look at various dictators in the continent such as the current president of South Africa, there's several leaders who are assassinating innocent people for no reason.

Only two days ago, quite close to where I live, 203 people were murdered by armed motorcycle gangs. Over 200 men with weapons killed all the elderly and children as young as five in a village. In Agadez, they have some military equipment there—they have US planes—and they didn't use them. Whereas, if you have just one person in France or in the US was affected by this it would be all over the international media.

I'm so sad. I don't eat anything. The women are crying in the desert. The terrorists are killing the people and they don't have water to drink. People lost access to water nearby so I started putting money aside to build a well. Another musician is going to help so we're going to build two. The military isn't daring to go into the desert to help the Tuareg people because of the terrorists. This is a really difficult time for the Tuareg people, with great danger.

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