Mdou Moctar: From Niger to international guitar hero

In the world of music, ‘guitar hero’ is a title achieved by very few. Now, a new hero has emerged from a remote village in rural Niger to become an international superstar with a 6-string style of his own. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker speaks to Mdou Moctar about his sound and rise to international stardom.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In the world of music, 'guitar hero' is a title achieved by very few.Now, a new hero has emerged from a remote village in rural Niger to become an international superstar with a 6-string style all his own.

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has the story and the sound.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In the English speaking press Mdou Moctar has been compared to Eddie Van Halen and called the Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara. The descriptions certainly help establish Moctar's virtuosity, but it is important to note that just a few years ago he didn't know who Eddie Van Halen was.

  • Mdou Moctar:

    For me it doesn't matter, they call me whatever they need, but I am still Mdou Moctar and then I try all to be me. I support absolutely, I support Jimi Hendrix. I love what you do. And then I love Eddie Van Halen to all the famous artists. Very talented. I love them, but I love myself more and then I try all the time to have my own style.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Sung in his native Tamashek and French, Moctar's music is a contemporary iteration of what's been nicknamed desert blues – guitar driven music performed by the Tuareg people, a traditionally nomadic group from the Sahara. I sat down with Moctar at the tail end of short fall tour of the U.S., just hours before he was to start his nearly 36-hour journey to his home in Niger.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you worry, that there's a rush to label you to say, oh, he is like this or westernize your sound?

  • Mdou Moctar:

    No, I don't didn't. The music, it's fee like, the music is like ocean.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Moctar's musical story is as complicated as it is remarkable. In some ways the start can be traced to a performance by Abdallah Oumbadougou, a famous Tuareg player that Moctar stumble upon as a young boy

  • Mdou Moctar:

    I saw Abdallah Oumbadougou that was my first concert in my life, that it was in early. I was very young and then I say, Wow, I have to be like this person. Yeah. And then I don't know when had going to have the guitar I had. No, I don't have the money. Anyone in my family going to support this. idea.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Watching Moctar play today, it can be hard to believe that not only is he self-taught, but the guitar he started with was one he made himself with wires from a bicycle.

    In 2008, Moctar recorded a collection of his songs on his phone, which were shared via via blue tooth from phone to phone throughout the region – and somehow, through a remarkably random series of events, find their way to American label Sahel Sounds, which would work to not only release some of Moctar's music with, but produce and direct a film loosely based on Moctar's life.

    Inspired by Prince's Purple Rain, Moctar plays a young Tuareg guitar hero looking to make it as a musician. As there is no word for purple in Tamashek – the film's english tile reads, "Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It."

    But Moctar's big break came in 2019, when he would release Moctar's "Ilana: The Creator," to critical acclaim. He and his band would play 112 shows that year across, the U.S., Canada and Europe. The Western world coming to know of Moctar's prowess and then last spring came Afrique Victime.

    A collection of nine songs – with Moctar coupling other-worldly guitar playing with charging lyrics about love, religion, women's rights and the colonial history of Western Africa.

  • Mdou Moctar:

    Africa is a victim of so many crimes. If we stay silent it will be the end of us.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you feel a heavy weight as an artist wrestling with all of these ideas and thoughts ?

  • Mdou Moctar:

    Being an artist is like being an embassy, I'm feel like an embassy for where I am fromt and then I don't have no power. Africa doesn't have no power to stop this corruption, this manipulation, this injustice. We don't have that power. I never like to write the song just like that. No, it's the nature inspired me. If I am in love, I'm going to write some some stuff for love? And then one, I see something like some crime happening or something like that. I can write this song talking about it. It's what I am.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The situation in Niger has become increasingly dangerous in recent years as Boko Haram – the islamic fundamenalists…..have broadedened their terror campaign through the Sahara. Tthe impoverished nation not only threatedby terrorism, but now seeing increased military presence as counter-insurgency efforts expand throughout the country.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you worry that if you get too political, that there would be a negative response towards your your music and art?

  • Mdou Moctar:

    Africa is starting to be very, very crazy and that is so it's so scary for all the artists, not just me. 'm scary, too, for my family and I'm scary for for everyone, not just me,

  • Christopher Booker:

    Does being in the world as you are in the world playing? Do you feel more internal peace or less internal peace?

  • Mdou Moctar:

    To be honest I started to be crazy, man. I don't know what I am. I don't know where I'm going to go. I don't know who I am. When I am with my crowd, I play for them. Make them smile. I'm happy. I feel free, but when I'm thinking for my continent, Africa, what happening in Africa, what is going on? And then world doesn't matter.

    I feel like, I don't know which day this is going to stop because the world doesn't take matter. I feel like the justice doesn't exist in the world. It's what I'm feeling. Music, it's like good way to to send in the message, but it's not obligation to someone to like understand that message.

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