Album Review: Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

[Matador; 2021]

Guitar music is having a helluva comeback in 2021. What was, for a while now, seen as a predictable instrument – one that was slowly being subsumed by synths and other electronics – has survived decades of new trends and fads that steal the spotlight momentarily. Part of this renaissance with the stringed wonder stems from a variety of musicians repurposing it for unlikely collaborations and new innovative of playing. One of the finest example is the Tuareg musician Mahamadou Souleymane, the Niger guitarist and songwriter behind Mdou Moctar. For years he’s toiled away at his guitar, writing music for his homeland and playing weddings. It wasn’t until 2019’s Ilana: The Creator, the first Mdou Moctar album properly recorded and produced with a band, that he made headway into the popular indie music discussion, a rise that saw him signed by heat seeking indie label Matador.

For his sixth album, Afrique Victime, Souleymane has hit a new high for his music. Whereas previous releases have dug into a more blues rock aesthetic, Afrique Victime fuses it more satisfyingly with an African feel via expansive guitar passages that tune perfectly with Souleymane’s unforgettable voice. His quartet is rounded out by rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim, and (American) producer and bassist Mikey Coltun. This is one of those instances where the rhythm guitar is just as much of an active band member as the lead singer or drummer. Oozing with talent at every curve, Afrique Victime is a testament to Souleymane’s powerful relationship with his homeland and the instrument of his soul.

What’s truly awe inspiring about Mdou Moctar’s guitar work is how colorful and flourishing it sounds, which is intriguing considering much of Souleymane’s inspiration came from his home, Agadez; a desert village. It was here he educated himself in six-string perfection via Eddie Van Halen videos, combining them with traditional Tuareg melodies. The end result is a marriage of sound that is so glorious that even those who don’t know what Mdou Moctar is singing (which will likely now be a majority) can still appreciate the harmony at play, whether it’s the summery, top down, driving rhythms of “Taliat” that captivate instantly, or the tender acoustic picking of the wholesome album closer “Bismilahi Atagah”.

To top this all off, Mdou Moctar’s lyrics are all the more resonant when underlined by such beautifully ear pleasing strings. “My love, no matter where you go / you’re always on my mind / I treasure you / You know I never want to see you in tears,” Souleymane sings lovingly in his native tongue on centerpiece “Tala Tannam” under the shroud of his gentle string plucking and slow-building hand claps. Souleymane and his band play with such conviction and sing with such purpose that they create worldly music that anyone can appreciate. Afrique Victime doesn’t change radically change anything about Mdou Moctar’s approach from Ilana (The Creator), it just greater capitalizes off its wide-open landscapes by occupying its expanses with breezy interludes and hymn-indebted melodies.

The strongest case for Mdou Moctar’s legacy status comes from the album’s penultimate seven minute-plus title track. An epic from start to finish, “Afrique Victime” captures the heart and soul of Mdou Moctar in its sonic walls. Frequent transitions between guitar genres and tones keeps the track feeling fresh throughout – there’s solos, there’s teases of garage rock, chest-warming reverb, and polyethylene-encased vocals that never bore or feel tired.  The entire band harmonizes for the choruses while Souleymane rides a lightning strike of electric guitar into the sky. There’s no mistaking the power of “Afrique Victime” as it welcomes you in, but it then “Helter Skelter”s you three quarters of the way in with some of Mdou Moctar’s most frantic guitar work on the album. It’s a perfectly poised protest song, with Souleymane lamenting “Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent it will be the end of us / Why is this happening?” This highly malleable aesthetic is characteristic of Souleymane’s world, and the sun-baked production gives it a palpable desert mustiness.

Afrique Victime is born out of exhaustion during a creative upswing for the band. Souleymane brought his friends with him on this journey, and through their performances they meditate on love, political activism, and African exploitation over the decades. It’s music for mending the soul and opening the eyes of skeptics to what music – what really good music – can do for us. No matter what walks of life we come from, there’s legitimate emotion attached to Mdou Moctar’s music, and it should shake any living, breathing being right to their core.