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The 50 best albums of 2021, No 10: Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

·4-min read

The self-taught assouf star broke out of the underground with a stunningly adventurous album that fused psychedelia, introspection and rock-star flair

In Mdou Moctar’s world, riff and rhythm count but the solo is king. His grounding in the nomadic Tuareg style of assouf (desert blues) made him a popular option on Niger’s wedding circuit, but the guitarist breaks from convention by doggedly following his fingertips to someplace new. A decade’s worth of refinement has led to Afrique Victime, the most complete document of Mdou’s ability to date and one of 2021’s most electrifying releases.

The young Mahamadou Souleymane was not just self-taught, but self-assembled: he fashioned his first instrument from bicycle wires and junk wood and discreetly maintained his passion for music in defiance of his family. His early recordings crossed the Sahel via Bluetooth and pricked ears for their application of AutoTune and drum machines – common in the charts of neighbouring Nigeria but unfamiliar in Tuareg tradition.

In the early 2010s, the specialist music imprint Sahel Sounds began releasing Mdou’s music worldwide. Label founder Chris Kirkley then spent months trying to track down the one they called Mokhtar (the Chosen) to deliver the left-handed player a guitar better equipped for his needs. In 2015, he wielded the instrument in a quasi-adaptation of Prince’s film Purple Rain (Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai). Mdou, flanked by a full band, gilded his reputation with international tours on which his hypnotic guitar twang emerged as a quicksilver, daring sound. It’s that sort of intuitive fretwork that elevates Afrique Victime, as Mdou blitzes steady two-chord songs into thick whorls of fuzz that engulf the stereo field.

Two theoretically opposing rock impulses combine in Mdou’s music. On one hand, the band’s adaptability has a clear connection to the no-frills enterprise of punk and hardcore. They lug their equipment over unforgiving terrain and can spark up a gig pretty much anywhere with a generator. (And fidelity-challenged formats are no impediment to getting the word out: to service fans in regions covered by 2G networks, Matador also sold Afrique Victime in the form of a custom Nokia 6120 handset.) On the other, Mdou’s fixation with the cresting leads and playful showmanship of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen has emboldened the Nigerien to flex his dexterous finger-tapping. Already a “feeling player” by nature, as the group’s bassist and in-house producer Mikey Coltun puts it, today Mdou embraces the flair of classic rock.

Afrique Victime streamlines the hooky onslaught of Mdou’s 2019 breakout LP, Ilana: the Creator, into something more well-rounded. Coltun’s sequencing affords breathers in between levee-breakers, giving necessary hush to introspective ballads Bismillah Atagah and Tala Tannam while allowing the molten psychedelia of Taliat and Asdikte Akal to sprawl. True to the music’s Saharan origins, there’s ample space here. Sometimes Mdou’s voice is barely above a whisper before the band join him in skyward invocations.

Related: 'We are modern slaves': Mdou Moctar, the Hendrix of the Sahara

Singing in Tamasheq, Mdou expands his romantic and hitherto apolitical songwriting by beseeching people to take pride in the desert’s beauty and train their scorn toward French and American imperial forces who exploit the Tuareg, Nigeriens and communities all over the African continent.

Mdou’s evolved technique brilliantly comes to bear on Afrique Victime’s title track, the album’s truest shredder. Tumbling toms and ululating licks scythe through the air like jets barrelling through a thunderstorm as the singer excoriates those who perpetrate crimes against his homeland. If Mdou is a new cult hero of DIY, this is his equivalent anthem to Hüsker Dü’s Reoccurring Dreams or Wipers’ Youth of America: moments where underground favourites unlocked new levels of musicianship, galloping to the edge of noisy expression over double-digit runtimes with sparkling solos that felt as if they might never end.

This virtuosity makes Mdou Moctar a curious fit for weddings (which he still plays when not on tour) yet a dazzling presence in left-of-the-dial rock. The alternately personal and provocative sound of Afrique Victime is an eruptive statement of intent, guitar music at once familiar and startlingly fresh.

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