Thirteen minutes of frenetic and questing and smoldering guitar soloing propelled along by an impossibly tinny drum-machine loop. Swirling sunburnt space-rock recorded live-bootleg style at Nigerian weddings where audience and performer alike are intoxicated by endless musical possibilities and grooves. An emotive acoustic mantra recorded at close range accompanied by claps and cries and haphazard harmonies from a group of comrades.
Welcome to the wild and unpredictable soundworld of firebrand Saharan Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, via his recent Niger Volume 1 and 2 mini-albums. And these are the outtakes!
Prior to becoming a Tuareg guitar legend, a young Moctar was entranced by YouTube clips of Eddie Van Halen's six-string acrobatics. So energized was Moctar that he built a guitar and set about perfecting his own take on that molten-metal sound, melding that with the sounds of his nomadic Tuareg countrymen (a gospel also being then spread by fellow travelers Tinariwen).
Moctar first garnered worldwide attention from an appearance on the 2010 Music From Saharan Cellphones compilation album, but he had more ambitious projects in the works. Moctar wrote and starred in his own take on Purple Rain — Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It, released in 2015. Successive tours and albums only boosted his name and profile, particularly 2019's critically lauded breakthrough Ilana: The Creator.
Moctar and company have gained fame as innovative interpreters of North African assouf — Saharan desert blues — and each new album has seen Moctar and his musical comrades expand and evolve their sound, enthralling audiences, yes, but always leaving room for elements of chance inspiration.
Now Moctar and his equally adventurous bandmates — guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, bassist Mikey Coltun and drummer Souleymane Ibrahim — are in the states to play Austin Psych Fest, New Orleans Jazz Fest and Miami's Afro Roots Fest. Mixed in are headlining dates around those appearances, one being Thursday's date at the Social.
This is a big deal for Orlando music fiends, and with the visa process for international touring musicians only getting more labyrinthine, Kafka-esque and cost-prohibitive, this is not something to do the ol' midweek flake on.
Orlando Weekly spoke with Moctar's creative foil, bassist and producer Mikey Coltun days before the U.S. tour kicked off, fresh off a sold-out run of Australian and New Zealand shows.
We asked Coltun about the beginnings of his creative partnership with Moctar, and he remembered a fannish leap of faith, contacting Moctar's old label and working with them to bring the musician stateside for the first time in 2017. Coltun ended up tour-managing a few dates ... and in the van, fate intervened.
"I was driving them on the first show and Mdou found out I played bass. They never had a bass player. Mdou said, 'OK, you're gonna play with us tonight.' I borrowed a bass at the show and it was pretty instantaneous that we connected. I looked at him and he looked back and smiled."
From that one show, Coltun joined the band on the rest of the tour and would end up managing and then later producing the band's albums.
Following that initial U.S. tour, Moctar invited Coltun to visit Niger, where he would live for a few months. While there he was immersed in the not-so-surprising commonalities between American DIY punk and the local Tuareg musicians' similarly DIY sensibilities.
"It was in Niger that I played three weddings a day for a couple months and really got to dig into the Tuareg wedding culture. I had spent time in Mali before this, but Niger was a whole different scene, especially the Agadez Tuareg scene. It was pretty immediate that I felt this commonality between the DIY punk world I grew up in in DC vs. the Agadez Tuareg world," says Coltun. "Everyone is helping carry and set stuff up, all the weddings are in the middle of a desert or outside a house with a generator powering everything, things are breaking constantly but there is this fuck-it attitude of 'just keep going, we can make it work.' It was that mentality that was similar to what I grew up with in punk and DIY."
This sense of creative freedom — setting up anywhere and just ripping — extends to all aspects of Moctar's creative and musical life. Coltun speaks of an improvisatory dynamic onstage where the music is built from the ground up nightly.
"We never do a setlist. We never talk about the music we're going to play. The shows are all improvised and every night it's different. Mdou will noodle at the beginning of a song hinting at a melody and then we're all in," says Coltun. "Songs could last anywhere from five minutes to 20 minutes and we improvise off these melodies, changing things up all the time. It's all spontaneous. I've said this before, but Mdou has the best band. He could do whatever the fuck he wants and Ahmoudou, Souleymane and I are there with him."
Speaking of doing whatever the fuck one wants, Moctar's Niger Vol. 1 and 2 EPs fly in the face of the traditional notion of album as sacrosanct statement, preferring a field-recording style to document the creative process, released by eminent indie Matador.
"I travel to Niger once or twice a year since I started going in 2017 and collecting field recordings. I wanted people to hear the source of this music unedited, raw and in its natural environment, from weddings to jamming out in the middle of nowhere to spontaneous gatherings of musicians sitting down playing music and drinking tea," says Coltun. "It's important for people to understand where this music comes from and that's what the Niger EPs are all about."
We ask with no small amount of trepidation about preconceptions of the Sunshine State heading into the tour. Coltun plays it cool, remembering a band adventure in Orlando back in 2019. "We had a day off near Orlando on that tour so a friend of ours hooked us up with Disney World tickets. I had been before as a kid, but the rest of the band had not, so that was really exciting and honestly life-changing for them," recalls Coltun. "Florida feels like its own country with its own set of rules."
Which should sit well with a quartet of musicians committed to living by their own particular musical rules. And doing whatever the fuck they want, of course.