A Tuareg band playing psychedelic desert blues live on a sandy Saharan street in front of a suburban house in West Africa. If you don’t have a smile watching this, there’s something wrong with you.
The look on the audience’s faces, the crazy dances of the little kids, the air guitar they play, the communal joy they exude, the way they move aside and part for the woman dancing blissfully on her own – the absolute antithesis of our received idea of a Muslim woman in a Muslim country – is all infectious.
You often hear people talking about concerts they wish they’d been at – Woodstock, the Stones at Altamont, Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, The Doors at the Roundhouse. But honestly, this may be the one I would most like to have attended.
The infection comes from four-piece band themselves, playing their trancelike desert blues, the missing link between the music of Africa and America.
The rhythms sit somewhere between blues and funk, with a hint of reggae and ska and even disco in the syncopation. Close your eyes and that electric guitar could be played an early-Seventies rock guitarist like Duane Allman or Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix, whose left-handed style he emulates on his Stratocaster.
But it’s not. Mdou Moctar (real name: Mahamadou Souleymane) is a Tuareg, and a Muslim, and comes from Niger, where he was raised in a small, deeply religious village where secular music was frowned upon.
Because his family disapproved of him playing guitar, he built his own crude guitar, with bicycle brake cables for strings, and taught himself to play in secret.
When he began recording, his music spread not by radio or the internet, but went viral through mobile phone music trading networks in West Africa.
Left-handed guitars were scarce in West Africa so he was sent his first one (this one) by Christopher Kirkley, an American ethnomusicologist from Portland, Oregon, who set up Sahel Sounds to release African field recordings.
One of Moctar’s tracks was included on a fantastic compilation album called Music From Saharan Cellphones, bringing him to a wider audience than in Niger, where he was a regular performer at weddings (you don’t really get that with Coldplay and Radiohead), singing in his native language, Tamasheq, about Islam, education, love and peace.
This song – the title tune of his new album – was recorded in the winter of 2020 at a friend’s house on the outskirts of the capital city, Niamey. Moctar recalls: “One day, we quietly set up in front of the house to film a few songs. Despite our relative isolation, the noise of the band inevitably attracted a crowd.
“What started as the four of us simply playing a few songs for a camera turned into a three-night run of rowdy concerts, bringing in hundreds of eager listeners. Each night, kids from all over the city would line up at our door, rushing over after their final evening prayer.
“These performances were completely spontaneous and wholly unplanned. Thanks to our audience, we were able to capture the spectacular energy of a typical Niamey concert for you. We’re thrilled about it and hope you will be, too. Enjoy!”