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Mdou Moctar - Ilana (The Creator) Music Album Reviews

The Tuareg musician’s first full-band studio album is an incandescent set of guitar music with a spontaneous, celebratory air—and a latent urgency reflecting the region’s very real difficulties.

Whether it’s stories about African-American legends reared on plantations in rural Mississippi or the apocryphal tale of a young Jimi Hendrix carrying around a broom until his family could afford a real guitar, blues and rock aficionados love a hardscrabble creation story. So it makes sense that in the discourse around one of the year’s most incandescent examples of guitar music, much ado is made about Mdou Moctar’s first instrument. The Tuareg guitarist was raised in northern Niger by a deeply religious family where music was verboten. He made his first guitar from a piece of wood strung with brake wires from an old bicycle, his many hours of practice kept clandestine.


Moctar’s path to the West has been a peculiar one. He began to make his name playing weddings; his first album (2008’s Anar) featured bits of Auto-Tune and made the rounds via Bluetooth swaps between mobile phones. After one of his songs was included on the Sahel Sounds compilation Music From Saharan Cellphones, label boss Christopher Kirkley set out to track down the young musician. When he did, he cast him in a bizarro remake of Purple Rain entitled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, the first feature film in the Tuareg language. The project would be heavy lifting for an artist without the instant magnetism and dazzling chops of Moctar, who easily filled the Purple One’s shoes.

From the opening lick of “Kamane Tarhanin,” Ilana (The Creator) elucidates just why our ears would draw a line from 20th-century blues and rock to another continent and a distinct style of guitar playing known as assouf. His first full-band studio album, it finds Moctar in the lineage of fellow Tuareg artists Tinariwen and Bombino. It also posits him as heir apparent to the mesmeric one-chord boogie of John Lee Hooker and ZZ Top circa Tres Hombres. Despite those antecedents, you can hear Moctar pushing further and higher at almost every turn, as when, around the song’s 4:15 mark, he enters with a streaking, white-hot comet of a guitar solo.

There’s a sense that the West pays attention to Tuareg artists dependent on how many other Westerners pitch in on the proceedings. Tinariwen have been visited by the likes of TV on the Radio and Kurt Vile in the studio, while Bombino has had both a Black Key and a Dirty Projector produce him. But outside of recording engineer Chris Koltay and bassist Michael Coltun, Moctar mostly plays off his fellow countrymen, rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane and drummer Aboubacar Mazawadje. Most of the songs were jammed out in the studio, and the feel throughout is spontaneous and celebratory, as when the tantalizing but far-too-brief “Inizgam” fades into the galloping chords of “Anna.”

While the band is holed up in a studio, it feels as if they’re playing out in the Sahara, space stretching out around every note. The hushed, dreamy “Tumastin” seems like it’s reverberating off of sand dunes. During the seven-minute centerpiece “Tarhatazed,” Moctar’s daredevil of a solo (bringing to mind Eddie Van Halen’s hammer-on majesty and eliciting background hoots) corkscrews higher and higher, as if he might disappear up into the night sky.

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I won’t pretend that I can understand Tuareg, but in interviews Moctar says the songs are both positive-minded but also highly critical of Niger’s former colonists, the French. As he told The Guardian in no uncertain terms: “We are modern slaves,” especially in the way the European power exploits the African country for its uranium and natural resources. There’s a latent urgency and furor in the title track when he sings, in Tuareg, “Our heritage is taken by the people of France/Occupying the valley of our ancestor.”

While Ilana will scan for most listeners as rock, there’s little of the style’s machismo. If anything, Moctar wants to draw attention to the plight of the women in his country. “I want the world to understand that the women of the desert need help,” he told Stereogum. “They don’t have water to drink, there’s no medicine in the hospitals.” It’s neither bootstrapping origin stories nor rock’n’roll fantasies so much as the grim realities facing Moctar and millions of others around the world that give Ilana its considerable power.



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