Mdou Moctar hopes to spark the revolution with ‘Afrique Victime’

The Tuareg guitarist visits Columbus for a sold-out Ace of Cups show on Wednesday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Mdou Moctar

Describing himself as a religious person, Mahamadou Souleymane, known professionally as Mdou Moctar, said he embraced the COVID-driven shutdowns of the last year as a blessing, saying through a translator that he spent much of the time at home in Niger, Africa, reconnecting with family members and fellow villagers.

“I really hadn’t had time to spend at home with my family since 2014, when I started touring,” said Moctar, who visits Ace of Cups for a sold-out show on Wednesday, Sept. 15. “It was a great opportunity to be with them in the desert and talk with them, especially the kids. … And then another thing I got to do was to better understand how the people in my area live, especially the poor people. I did a little tour in the neighboring villages, and it brought out a lot of empathy in me.”

Not that the musician had been at all lacking in that department. On Afrique Victime, released on Matador Records in May, the Tuareg virtuoso delves into issues of women’s rights and imperialism, singing primarily in Tamasheq. “If we stay silent,” he sings on the title track, “it will be the end of us.”

“Modern colonization, it definitely hasn’t stopped. The basic problem is the world loves raw materials more than it loves human life,” Moctar said. “Some people are getting killed over the materials to produce cars, for instance. … Once someone dies, they’re gone forever. There are some business people who think they are incredibly intelligent because they’ve studied somewhere, but, to me, if you haven’t understood the importance of human life, that education is worthless. You need to help others and love them, and that’s not what I’m seeing under current governance throughout the world and under colonization.

“I do know that some people see what’s going on in Africa, but they choose to close their eyes because it’s in their best interest. … People know there are many crimes happening in Africa, but the media doesn’t really talk about it. It’s nothing like the way it’s reported when people face violence in the Western world, so it feels like the whole world doesn’t consider Africans to be human beings.”

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With his music, Moctar wants to open eyes to these realities, occasionally using volume to make his point, joining with rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, bassist Mikey Coltun and drummer Souleymane Ibrahim in creating fiery, psychedelic rock tracks centered on Moctar’s candescent playing. In contrast to his vocals, which tend to follow a call-and-response pattern, Moctar’s playing is slippery and unpredictable, his guitar solos echoing a firework show where each burst brings forth an unexpected shape and color, some crackling into white-hot blooms and others spiraling dizzily into the atmosphere.

Despite the way the music and the message work in concert on record, each pushing the other, giving the songs both potency and urgency, Moctar said he doesn’t turn to the guitar as a means of coping in those moments of crisis.

“When times are hard and I’m feeling really bad, I actually stop playing completely,” he said. “I don’t even want to hear music. I think of it like being in mourning, where I isolate myself. And it’s only after that that I start to write.”

What listeners are hearing on albums such as Afrique Victime, then, is the sound of the multicolored butterfly breaking through this darkened chrysalis. 

“I think music is a big part of revolution, and I think it’s a great way to transmit messages,” Moctar said. “And it’s something extraordinary, right? You can be up and dancing and at the same time hear a message. Then it’s up to the people to decide. They can listen and talk about these topics, or they can be quiet. But most people, I think, choose to understand what’s going on. … You don’t have to be threatening to really transmit a message.”