Words: Greg N.
The title of Mdou Moctar’s latest record is “Afrique Victime.” Though I don’t speak French, the meaning is easily enough to decipher. But as all the songs (well, except for “Untitled”) seem to be in Tamasheq, Moctar’s native language, and as I discovered during the course of writing this that Google translate does not support Tamasheq, the title of the record is the only glimpse most of us can get into what it means. So here we are, Westerners, listening to a record we cannot completely hear.
Despite the opacity of the language, to those familiar with Moctar’s previous work, it is easy to recognize the language of his guitar; his playing forms a language all its own. It clearly draws on Tuareg guitar and desert blues predecessors such as Ibrahim Ag Alhabib of Tinariwen, and Ali Farka Toure, but he takes the art into a realm uniquely his own. Whereas classic desert blues guitar uses a fairly sparse tone to evoke sonic images of North African courtyards, Moctar isn’t shy or inhibited about using effects more effusively, such as on the opener “Chismiten.” At various times throughout the album distortion, flanger, long delays and reverbs detach the songs from the landscape- they rise up into the sky and swirl into the stratosphere. The liner notes invoke Van Halen, and the solos and flourishes are more showy, dramatic and EVH-like than his desert counterparts.’
Softer, more acoustic and organic facets also show themselves as a backdrop to the call-and-response on “Tala Tannam.” This track reminds me somewhat of “Anar” – a very early song of Moctar’s recorded way back before Christopher Kirkley of Sahel Sounds “discovered” him and brought his music to international attention. Even then, Moctar’s fascination with modern technology was evident in the autotuned vocals and cheesy drum machine accompanying the acoustic guitar.
On several tracks here on Africa Victime, he pays homage to his predecessor and hero Abdallah Ag Oumbadagou, who was among the first to mix traditional Tuareg guitar with contemporary electronic elements. One of the two tracks he dedicates to him is called “Layla.” Despite any suspicions raised by the name, it is a tribute to Ounbadagou and not Clapton. Acoustic Tuareg rhythms do their trance-inducing thing, while the chanted vocals, perhaps sung in chorus, perhaps multi-tracked are punctuated by a few notes of Moctar’s electric guitar, the delay and reverb giving a sense of the wide open empty spaces of the desert.
After some deep digging on bandcamp, I found additional liner notes to “Chismiten,” which tells us that it’s about “how people in a relationship lose their sense of self, they become jealous and envious of others.” Moctar seeks Allah’s guidance to not be that person. As a guitarist, to sit and listen to these captivating acrobatics, avoiding jealousy and envy is no easy thing. May Allah help me as well.