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From Saharan guitarist Mdou Moctar, a desert storm of psychedelic rock

Mdou Moctar (in black), with bandmates (from left) Souleymane Ibrahim, Mikey Coltun, and Ahmoudou Madassane.
Mdou Moctar (in black), with bandmates (from left) Souleymane Ibrahim, Mikey Coltun, and Ahmoudou Madassane.Matador Records

More than 100,000 people live in the city of Agadez, the Saharan home of the Tuareg people in the West African country of Niger. The old city is dominated by low-lying, fortress-style homes made of mud brick. With broad, unpaved boulevards and plenty of room between buildings, says Agadez native Mdou Moctar, the overwhelming sensation is the enormity of the sky.

That might have something to do with Moctar’s music: It’s big. Very big.

He plays his own brand of desert blues, traditional Tuareg drones and rhythms blown sky-high by Western-style hard rock guitar improvisation. It’s psychedelic music in the best sense — it’s mind-bending — though the phrase means little to the guitarist.


“I like to produce sounds that have heavy vibrations, that are kind of angry,” says Moctar, speaking on the phone in French, with the help of a translator. He and his band are touring America into October, playing Saturday at Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts and Sunday at the Sinclair in Cambridge.

The songs on Moctar’s new album “Afrique Victime” (Matador), the follow-up to 2019′s breakthrough “Ilana: The Creator,” throb with intensity, no question. But the anger that Moctar attributes to the perpetual injustices suffered by his people, and the people of the African continent at large, also translates into transcendence.

“That’s something that I want to transmit when I’m talking about revolution in my music,” he says. “I want to make it so even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you understand that something is going on here through the sound. I want the music to tell you that.”

“If we kept silent they decimate us,” he sings in both French and Tamasheq, one of the Tuareg languages, on the album’s title track. It’s a lament, but the seven-minute song unfolds into a steadily increasing tempo and Moctar’s otherworldly Stratocaster riffing.


At age 35, Moctar wears the traditional veil of Tuareg men. His bandmates are younger: rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim, and bassist Mikey Coltun, a musical prodigy from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., who has assimilated seamlessly into Moctar’s distinctive style.

Coltun’s inclusion in the band is part of Moctar’s determination to fight divisions of all kinds with his music. He’s vehemently opposed to racism, sexism, war.

“I strongly believe it doesn’t matter what country you come from. We’re all humans,” he says. “What’s important is to love music, love what you do, and for sure Mikey has all those qualities.”

As a young man Moctar was infatuated with the music of Abdallah Oumbadougou, a politically motivated desert blues guitarist who was a contemporary of Tinariwen, the long-running Tuareg group that has helped bring the music of the Sahara to American audiences. Oumbadougou died last year, not quite 60; two of the songs on “Afrique Victime” honor him.

Moctar first taught himself to play on a homemade instrument strung with bicycle brake cables, before getting his hands on actual guitars. After he began recording for the Portland, Ore., label Sahel Sounds, he asked founder Christopher Kirkley about how he could go about obtaining a Fender electric. Left-handed, he hadn’t realized up to that point that manufacturers make guitars for lefties.

“I said ‘No way!,’” Moctar recalls. “I didn’t think that even existed.”

Kirkley, who established his label by making field recordings, was in Mauritius at the time. He found a second-hand, left-handed Stratocaster and shipped it to Moctar’s home in Niger.


“I can say that guitar has really traveled,” Moctar says. “It went across the whole continent to reach me.”

Today, he’s constantly experimenting with effect pedals, incorporating plenty of delay and distortion into his sound. Because Moctar’s story involves him overcoming his family’s early objection to his pursuit of electric music, Kirkley suggested they remake Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Reportedly the first feature film made in the Tuareg language, “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai” (2015) translates as “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It.” (There is no Tuareg word for “purple.”)

Stories about Moctar often mention how he came to admire the late Eddie Van Halen’s technique by watching videos. And he’s frequently compared to Jimi Hendrix.

He’s polite about those references, but he’s also self-confident.

“It’s true with time I came to discover many Western artists,” he says. “I love what Hendrix does, and I support his legend and his memory. The same for Eddie Van Halen — I love his guitar-tapping style.

“But that doesn’t stop me from saying I’m not these people,” he goes on. “I never want to copy someone. I want to continue to be myself, to develop my own personal style. That’s who I am.”

While rehearsing for the current tour recently in New York City, Moctar and his band tried to keep the volume down so as not to disturb the neighbors.


“But sometimes we forget and play as if we’re at home,” he says. He needn’t have worried. One morning, they woke to find a note taped to the door. It was the best review he’s received.

“Thank you so much for the music,” it read. “It made my stress go away.”


At Gateway City Arts, 92 Race St., Holyoke, Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. $17-$20. www.gatewaycityarts.com

At the Sinclair, 52 Church St., Cambridge, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. $22-$25. www.sinclaircambridge.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.