Review: Mdou Moctar will put you in a trance
March 30th 2023
Photo by: Ruby Munslow
Eyes shut, jaw clenched, head raised – Mahamadou Souleymane, otherwise known as Mdou Moctar, basques in the swirling lights that dance across the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room, an intimate space built with acoustics in mind, intensifying any live performance. It feels almost sacred.
It’s not just the incomparable sound that permeates from Moctar’s guitar in ‘Chismiten’ that makes him so remarkable, but the path that lead him and his band members to sell out three Sydney headline shows.
His journey began in Niger, dodging the disapproval from his parents of his love for music by assembling his first guitar from bicycle cables, to recording his first Hausa music-inspired album Anar in Nigeria in 2008, which spread across the Sahel via mobile phone music trading networks.
Since then, Mdou Moctar has released a slew of recordings. His recent release Niger EP Vol. 2 is an exhibition of takes of songs he and his band have recorded since 2017 in Niger, made up of interview clips and live recordings. It also features, ironically, phone recordings – bringing back the very form of media he used to share his music via Bluetooth a decade prior.
Mdou Moctar makes guitar playing look more abstract and gnarly than I can comprehend. I find myself mimicking the strenuous facial expressions he pulls as his fingers glide effortlessly and brutally across the strings, a practice he has honed over the years, earning his name as ‘the Hendrix of the Sahara’.
A cheeky raise of the eyebrow from Moctar to Ahmoudou Madassane on rhythm guitar confirms he is aware of the spell he has cast over us. Then, for a moment, the spell breaks as an elated punter shouts, “You guys rock!” toward the band, followed by a symphony of words of appreciation from the crowd.
It strikes me that only a few of the crowd may understand Tamasheq – the language Moctar sings in. In previous interviews, Mdou Moctar shared how his lyrics express the lightness of love to darker subjects, such as the terrorism and modern slavery he has witnessed in Africa.
Is our experience of their live show altered due to our ignorance of the subject matter?
Yet still, we stand in awe of Moctar and his band dressed in decorous Taureg robes, as his frenzied yet intricate guitar shredding in ‘Tarhatazed’ has us clapping until our hands are sore.
It feels as if time has stood still since entering the Utzon Room, and we are knocked back into reality as Mdou Moctar awkwardly announces the set is over, with a humble “thank you” and removal of his left-handed Stratocaster.
However, it took no time for the band to return to a pleading crowd for an encore with their hypnotic masterpiece ‘Afrique Victime’, pulling us back into a trance with Mdou’s stunning vocals, which soared and dipped, hitting notes that seemed to transcend the realm of sound.
As we are left to unpack every emotion and memory evoked from tonight’s set, the sounds of the city feel harsh and jarring, as if they don’t quite belong in the same reality as the music we’ve just heard.