January 22, 2015

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Peter Holslin will never forget peanut butter

It’s hard to dispute the dopeness of a guy like Mdou Moctar. A Tuareg guitarist based in the city of Agadez in northern Niger, he specializes in a style of loose, droning Saharan desert rock that goes over well at wedding parties but also feels warm and welcoming during daytime singalongs beneath the shade of an acacia tree. I first heard him in late 2011, when his song “Tahoultine” appeared on the superb Sahel Sounds compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones. Sandwiched between a hilarious Lil Wayne knockoff and a frantic dance banger, Moctar’s track stood out for its otherworldly calm— his easygoing acoustic guitar licks paired with vocal melodies and harmonies thickened by Auto-Tune.

Like fellow Agadez artists Omara “Bombino” Moctar and Group Inerane, Moctar represents a younger generation of Tuareg musicians—he’s not as famous as the globe-trotting veterans in Tinariwen, but he’s promising and his international renown has been gradually rising. He’s gotten a lot of shine thanks to Sahel Sounds’ Christopher Kirkley, who has released Moctar’s music online and even cast him as the star of a Tuareg-language, Kirkley-directed homage to Purple Rain filmed last year. The title: Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, or Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It. As far as I can tell it hasn’t been released yet, but Moctar looks pretty stylish in the trailer.

Moctar is known to perform on the Agadez wedding party circuit, and his chops are well showcased on his 2013 album Afelan, a potent collection of rusty-edged jams and sun-weathered ballads. Still, I’m much more swayed by Anar, an album that came out on Sahel Sounds last September that’s proving to be one of my most slept-on records of 2014. Originally recorded in 2008, Anar is Moctar’s first album (originally distributed by the Sahara’s peer-to-peer cellphone networks) and it finds him making a surprising departure from Tuareg guitar traditions. Though his easygoing guitar licks are much in evidence, he also embraces the airy keyboards, digitized drums and, yes, Auto-Tuned vocals of the Hausa pop music of northern Nigeria that is used in regional films inspired by Bollywood.

Winding and wandering his way through the eight tracks, Moctar takes an unrefined approach to the acoustic guitar, sticking to light flourishes and ringing chord patterns. He has his melodic moments, though, turning “Nikali Talit” into an uplifting singalong with multitracked chorus parts. The drums on the album are obviously computerized, but the cyclical patterns are offset just a hair; in the title track this makes things just a bit more soulful as Moctar works his guitar. Occasionally the music will be augmented with cheesy computer ornamentations, like the tinny horn and UFO-levitating synth flutes of “La Super.” There are definitely Afropop tunes that suffer from such touches, but here they just add to the strange, hypnotic vibe.

Bringing everything together, of course, are the vocal filters. Moctar has a fine enough voice without Auto-Tune; on “A Fleur Tamgak” from Afelan his throaty tone exudes vulnerability. But on Anar the pitch-correction, pushed to robotic levels and paired with reverb and delay, brings more depth to his singing style. In “Achinane” the filters help push the vocal tracks into the red—rawness in digital form —while on “Tahoultine” they amplify the rich resonance of his guttural inflections and plaintive strains.

I’m sure a lot of listeners would prefer Moctar’s rawer guitar jams, but I find Anar uniquely compelling. It’s simple, unadorned music, pushed in an unexpected direction.

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