Mahamadou Souleymane, or Mdou Moctar as you may know him, is a guitarist from Niger who performs an eclectic style of amplified folk and psychedelic dessert rock endemic to the Tuareg tribes for which he belongs. The Tuareg people are a nomadic ethnic group, who primarily make a living as traders and whose merchant routes and cattle trade take them across multiple sovereign territories in Northern and West Africa, including Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Chad. The majority of Tuareg practice a specific version Islam known as Maliki and Tuareg men are distinguishable by the heavy veils they wear over their faces at all times, even while at home. In addition to trade, the Tuareg are known for their fighting prowess and have played significant roles in the many conflicts that have defined most of North West Africa’s history from the post-colonial ’60s through to today. Mdou is not a fighter though. His connection to his people is through their art and culture, traditions which he has managed to help popularize throughout the world over the course of five wonderful albums.
This year, Mdou has released his sixth album Afrique Victime through Matador Records. The global pandemic and the rise in political violence in his native Niger almost clipped the wings of his ambitions before they could take flight though. The unrest in Niger is the product of a contested Presidential election, the results of which were announced in February of 2021, with the Party for Democracy and Socialism Candidate Mohamed Bazoum being declared the winner, over the Central Party Candidate Mahamane Ousmane, who had previously served as Niger’s President in 1993 before being ousted in a coup. The violence arising from the election results occurred almost immediately, with gangs attacking storefronts, burning homes, and assaulting people in the street. The election was meant to be Niger’s first, peaceful and democratic transfer of power since winning its independence from France.
While the violence has not delayed the release of Mdou’s album, it has caused the rest of his life to be shrowded in uncertainty, as the Tuareg people were aligned with Bazoum and are now target of reprisal. An unfortunate turn of events, as this is was the first time that the Tuareg’s gained any representation in the government of Niger. In addition to anti-Tuareg violence, Mdou is increasingly concerned with the way that the jihadist group Boko Haram has used the chaos of the election to increase their activities in the region. Boko Haram and other extremist groups have deepened their foothold in the region following the US-backed ousting and assassination of Lybian leader Muammar Gaddafi, an event which plunged the region into chaos and eventually lead to a civil war, a conflict that was actively being fought up until October of 2020. The presence of Boko Haram and other extremist groups is worrisome, not only because of the politically destabilizing effect they have on the region, but also, because Mdou is a musician, and therefore runs the risk of being specifically targeted by the jihadists. As a result, he has had to be very cautious while away from home. As Mdou relates, “People are not sure where the terrorists are. They might be nearby. And we’ve got to be careful about every little thing: like what we say, what times we leave our house, and who we are with while we are out.”
Still, Mdou remains hopeful for the release of his new album, Afrique Victime and the inspiring impact that he hopes it will have on his people during this moment of instability. We encourage you to give Afrique Victime a listen below, and then read our full interview with Mdou and his guitarist Mikey Coltun below:
This interview was conducted via phone on March 24 with the aid of an interpreter. The transcript ahs been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
Can you shed some write some light on the political unrest that has gripped in Niger this year?
Mdou: A lot of stuff happened, in particular this week. I mean, basically, the terrorists from Boko Haram have committed a sort of genocide. There were some killings that happened and destruction. They attacked several villages. Death estimates are around, at a minimum of 203 people. Lots of stuff has been burned, including feedstocks. We didn’t have many COVID victims here. Few people wore masks, even though wearing turbines is a part of our culture, but there were many, many victims of terrorism.
I know you lost the internet immediately after the election outcome was announced. Did that make it difficult to get information and did it make it difficult to keep track of the ongoing unrest?
Mdou: Indeed, the connection was cut right after the election. That’s because after Mahamane Ousmane was elected, the Central Party was very unhappy about this Tuareg victory. This is the first time that the Tuareg people were represented in this way. So then protests broke out in the city, and they were burning down Tuareg shops. Which is just pure racism, in my opinion. So that’s when the decision was taken to cut access to the internet in an attempt to try to stabilize the country and the situation. But it didn’t effect my access to information that much.
Does it seem like the unrest has cooled at this point, or do you think it will continue?
Mdou: So this is only the beginning from what I gather, because people are getting together to try to organize to defend themselves. Meanwhile, Boko Haram is increasingly active and is eliminating people. So it’s going to become incredibly difficult for artists to stay in Niger, they’re gonna have to leave because, obviously, Boko Haram aims to kill artists.
Do you feel like you’re going to have to leave the country soon?
Mdou: I reckon Niger is still one of the safest countries in the region right now. I tried to go to Nigeria, but recently hundreds of people were killed there as well. It’s a really terrible situation as you can imagine. I mean, it’s the same situation in Mali and Libya. Both are at war at the moment. So all of the surrounding countries present a very difficult situation. And it’s increasingly bad. So maybe it’s better for me to stay put and risk dying with my family. If the situation worsens, and really gets out of my hand, I am considering selling my house and leaving the continent with my whole family and maybe going to Europe. I don’t really know what the future holds.
Your new album Afrique Victime has many political themes. Would you mind unpacking some of them for the benefit of our reader?
Mdou: So yeah, like it says in the title, Africa is a victim at the moment of many terrible circumstances that are arising. Of course, above all, it’s a beautiful continent. But I think we’re being destroyed at the moment. Some people say that they’re helping to build up Africa. But really, they’re not. They are only participating in its destruction. Sadly, there’s still a lack of access to technology, the access to education for children is not that great, and of course, some parts of the world support us, but with what just happened, this particular week… we’re not ever going to be able to forget. I mean, I sent a picture to Mikey (Coltun) of this mass grave with women and children. This is happening right around me at the moment. This is taking a bad turn.
How is Niger still impacted by having been a French colony?
Mdou: The truth is that we very much regret having been colonized by France. It was never our choice. American and French companies are just bringing problems. It’s obviously not the government providing the population with weapons to murder itself. Planes have been seen coming in and when foreign companies come in to sell, for instance, motorbikes they also trade weapons. And it’s always white people. So we can’t say whether they’re French or from the US, but the weapons were not produced in our country, that’s for sure. The proliferation of weapons is definitely creating instability. There are so many paramilitary commandos here today and they are heavily weaponized and they’ve lots of equipment. I think it’s because of these deals between the Western world and terrorists, sadly.
How has the current political situation affected your ability to promote your upcoming album?
Mdou: I think it has had zero impact because the Tuareg people are a warrior people, so people were still expecting to listen to my music. It’s a tradition for Tuareg warriors to listen to music to find courage during unstable times.
So people are still enjoying your album and you’re still able to play your music at this time even though there is so much unrest?
Mdou: At the moment, I’m not able to play. I can only compose and encourage artists. But this is a time of mourning, so I’m not playing at all. And the other thing is, we’re in a situation where we can’t do any concerts, because people are not sure where the terrorists are. They might be nearby. And we’ve got to be careful about every little thing: like what we say, what times we leave our house, and who we are with while we are out. This not a time for concerts, sadly.
You have a little bit diffrent sound Afrique Victime. Would you mind explaining to us how your sound has changed on this record when compared to your previous efforts?
Mdou: This album is a bit different from the others because, in a sense, it kind of is a mix of all of the previous albums. For instance, on one of my first albums I did acoustic music and on later albums I did more electric guitar solos, on this one though, there’s a bit of rock as well. So what’s different about this one is that it is much more diverse and a combination of all of my major techniques.
Mikey Coltun: I want to add something to this too. We toured almost 250 shows in 2019 so we were very tight as a band and we kind of wanted to go into the studio and capture that. Where on Ilana the music felt a little more stylized, a little more like Black Sabbath or ZZ Top. For this album, we wanted it to sound a little more like what the live band actually sounds like, mixed with acoustic, mixed with electronics, etc…
Where was the album recorded?
Mikey: We recorded it at a bunch of different studios. It’s something like four studios. We did some in my apartment. We did vocals in hotel rooms and backstage while on tour. It was kind of necessary for this record to be done in a bunch of different places while we were on tour
So it was necessary to do the recordings spontaneously so that it would have that live feel?
Mikey: Yea,h while we were on tour we would take a day off or we would do it right before we had a show, just tokind of capture that live energy while we were on tour.
What was your favorite part about making this album?
Mdou: My favorite part was to be able to work on the sound mixing with Mikey because I already feel like he’s able to understand where I’m going with the music. It’s was all just very good.
Mikey: Yeah, in general, I love working with Mdou because he’s very open-minded to different sounds and he’s very curious about trying new things. Coming from an experimental background, that kind of thing is very much my bread and butter, and it’s something that Mdou appreciates. Lastly, I think through the years of touring and basically living together we kind of understand each other.
What are your hopes for 2021?
Mdou: I’m someone who loves to explore and try new things constantly, but I’m also very attached to traditional touring music, so in the upcoming year I feel like I want to explore traditional music and see how I can mix it in with other art forms. So I’m gonna go interact with visual artists and see what happens.
Mikey: We’ve been talking about doing this next exploration and I’m excited to go back to the Niger when it’s okay to work on this together. I’m excited to tour again and I’m excited to get back into the world of Mdou.
On many of your album covers you feature a specific bird. I was wondering what the bird is and if it has any significance to the Tuareg people.
Mdou: The bird on my album covers is my symbol. It’s a species of desert bird. My turban colors are based on the colors of this bird. It is black and white – which of course is also a nod to what can happen when those two colors come together. Another thing is that this species of bird is one of the most free in Niger: it can go anywhere, and you see it in many different places. It’s quite innocent as well, people never kill it, they really let it be.
Translated by Penny Campbell.
Photo by WH Moustapha.