There may be no greater symbol of the transcendent power of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion than the electric guitar. From Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix, it has regularly bucked tradition, torn down barriers and challenged the squares of the world. If there’s anything that can give voice to defiance and the collective discontent of a group of people, the electric guitar is it.
Tuareg guitar hero Mdou (pronounced “M-doh”) Moctar, who will perform at The Mothlight on Saturday, Jan. 12, is a striking example of this irrepressible electric force.
The Tuareg, a nomadic people who live all across the western Sahara Desert, are one of the largest confederations of Berbers in Africa. They’ve fought for independence of their home regions for over a century — an existence still shaped largely by war and the lasting effects of colonialism.
Since the early 2000s, however, a steady proliferation of so-called “desert guitar” bands have emerged from among young Tuareg people, presenting a breathtaking fusion of traditional folk melodies and psychedelic, blues-influenced drones. These Tuareg groups have established a defiant musical independence, rebelling against their elders and the strict confines of religious tradition.
Hailing from the remote Azawagh desert of Niger, Moctar first learned to play guitar on a one he built himself out of planks of wood at the age of 10, he told Xpress — via email, through a translator. “The strings were made from the cable for the bicycle,” he says, and there were only five: “I didn’t even know how many strings a guitar had.”
He continues, “It was hard to play guitar at first because I practice Islam, and my family thought I might do bad things if I played guitar, like drink and do drugs, but it’s not true.”
As a young musician, Moctar was heavily influenced by Tuareg folk music, called “takamba,” but he also fell in love with the wild guitar mastery of Eddie Van Halen.
In his 20s, Moctar gathered notoriety among the young people of the region, in no small part due to his adventurous, genre-bending guitar playing. Tuareg guitar bands are no stranger to the electric ax, but Moctar was intent on pushing the limits of the instrument. It’s a fact that has undoubtedly played a role in his growing international following, as well.
Moctar traveled to Nigeria in 2008 to record his first album, Anar. The record that was never officially released but instead was distributed across the desert through Bluetooth file-sharing apps on cheap cellphones, the predominant method for passing along music in a region without reliable internet or phone reception. “In the desert, you do not have to connect to the internet to have good music,” Moctar says. “Bluetooth has a stronger connection than Wi-Fi or data in Niger.”
In 2010, Moctar joined with the Portland, Ore.-based label Sahel Sounds, founded by music ethnographer/archivist/filmmaker Christopher Kirkley. Together, they released Moctar’s first international album, Afelan, a blistering collection of blown-out, distorted guitars that remains a towering example of modern Tuareg guitar music and an astonishing illustration of the sheer power of primitive, soul-shaking rock ‘n’ roll.
Moctar and Kirkley even made a film together, a Saharan reimagining of Prince’s Purple Rain. Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, or “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in It,” from 2015, is the first ever Tuareg-language film — a dialect without a word for purple.
Like Prince’s Purple Rain, the film tells the story of a young guitar player’s rise to fame as he makes a name for himself in the local music scene despite the disapproval of his conservative father. The film is a classic story of artistic evolution and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion.
Despite Moctar’s penchant for pushing boundaries, he still notices the ubiquitous appeal of his music and its ability to act as a bridge between disparate cultures — something he observed specifically at LEAF Festival (where he performed last spring).
“I invited other musicians onstage for our last song, and we were onstage together as brothers,” he says. “The more I played with artists who didn’t sound like my band, the more the audience loved it.”
Moctar’s music — and the modern Tuareg guitar movement — is a testament to rock ‘n’ roll’s protean ability to challenge authority and push boundaries. It’s also undeniably universal. For Moctar, it all comes down to bringing people together and making them dance. “I play rock music because it’s dancing music,” he says. “I love making people dance at my home in the desert and around the world because even if you aren’t familiar with the musician, you can at least dance.”
WHO: Mdou Moctar with Black Sea Beat Society
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 12, 9 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show