Peter Holslin needs guitar lessons.
It’s not much of a leap to say the era of the rock star has come and gone. Record sales have given way to algorithms, the album format is donezo, and the #MeToo movement and the recent release of HBO’s Leaving Neverland has forced a reckoning over the despicable behavior of once-invincible musical heroes of all kinds — making many wonder if we even want or need artists in the “rock star” mold anymore. If rock stars do exist right now, they’re all rappers. But then we also have Mdou Moctar.
In 2015, Moctar launched to international acclaim as the star of Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (aka Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It), a freewheeling, low-budget remake of Prince’s Purple Rain set in the Saharan frontier town of Agadez, Niger. Moctar is a Tuareg guitarist from Niger, who plays hypnotic “desert blues” in the tradition of “desert blues” artists like Tinariwen and Bombino. The Tuareg guitar sound has its roots in post-colonial upheavals and armed rebellion, but Moctar comes from a younger generation. The style that has come out of Agadez tends to be harder and faster compared to the heady sound of Tinariwen. In Akounak — which was directed by Christopher Kirkley of the record label Sahel Sounds — Moctar is shown battling it out with a local rival and dealing with a disapproving father as he struggles to pen the next Tuareg rock classic that will hopefully win him glory and redemption in an upcoming battle of the bands.
Akounak put Moctar on the map, and now he continues to deliver the goods. The mellowed-out, Auto-tuned balladeer that American and European audiences first heard on the 2011 mixtape Music from Saharan Cellphones and subsequent full-length release/reissue Anar rises into a bona-fide guitar god on his new album, Ilana (The Creator). Out later this month on Sahel Sounds, the 9-track effort was recorded in Detroit by engineer Chris Koltay, with some extra overdubs and mixing later done back home in Niger. The album is beautifully performed and produced: There’s the raw intensity, political lyrics and minimal chord structures that are so central to this music, but throughout the album Moctar continually raises the stakes with subtle shifts and epic solos.
He’s connected to his roots: Recent single “Wiwasharnine” is a smoldering ode to the Tuareg, who have struggled for decades in a region scarred by drought and conflict, while “Tumastin” is a gentle ballad with spacious atmospheres brought out by generous reverb effects. But he also stretches out as a songwriter and shows off some cool techniques he’s picked up while touring North America and Europe — “Tarhatazed” may just be Moctar’s most incredible recording to date, a multi-part saga of galloping drums and guitar distortion, culminating in a blazing solo of Eddie Van Halen-style finger-tapping. The dinosaurs are on their way out, but here we have a new kind of rock star for a new era.