The modern Tuareg musical tradition is defined by movement. In post-colonial Africa, the Tuareg were migrants living on the periphery of cities, struggling to find work and citizenship. In fact, their popular guitar style, ishumar, got its name from chumar, the French word for "unemployed." Now Taureg music travels as much on informational highways as it does on real ones: MP3s are swapped across mobile devices, whole albums shared via Bandcamp, and musicians go viral via YouTube clips. But few have earned an international spotlight like Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar, just one of the Tuareg musicians carrying this tradition forward on the world stage.
Moctar is as rock 'n' roll as he is Tuareg, and his music leans just as much toward psychedelia as it does folk, pushing the boundaries of what music of the region is expected to sound like. On his latest album, Sousoume Tamachek, released by the Portland, Oregon, label Sahel Sounds, Moctar takes a harder folk turn with a fully acoustic album. The album emerges from a period in his early musical life where he couldn't play in public spaces because of strict religious authority; instead, he played with friends at private takits, informal picnics where friends would drink tea and play songs together. This album represents the slower and more meditative pace of his music before it quickened due to the influence of Western styles and preferences.
Christopher Kirkley started Sahel Sounds as a pet project to record the sounds of the southern Sahara, which stemmed from Kirkley's desire to capture the music played at village weddings and takits, as opposed to just the music popularized by radio stations in urban centers. After hearing Moctar's song "Anar" via MP3, Kirkley decided to befriend him and see if he could feature the song on his compilation album Music from Saharan Cellphones. Moctar agreed to participate, and now the two have been friends and collaborators for over seven years, working together on albums, concerts, and even a movie—Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazouhhai, a Tuareg reimagining of Purple Rain.
Moctar and Kirkley's work at Sahel Sounds testifies to the changing landscape of world music, which historically has teetered recklessly between curiosity and fetishism. What used to be a genre organized around selling "undiscovered" artists to Western audiences has become, with the advent of digital platforms, a dialogue on how to think through musical traditions and how those traditions interact.
"We usually see some contemporary touring African acts play pretty large festivals or academic programs, but I've noticed that, this tour, Mdou is playing a lot of bills with pretty experimental acts and smaller independent-show spaces with alternative programming," says Devon Tuttle, who booked Moctar's appearance at Kings in Raleigh. "The fans of Mdou's music are the really deep diggers. They are the really exploratory kind of listeners. He's being mixed in with radically diverse programming."
Explorers, music archivists, curators, d.j.s, and musicians have been at the forefront of current dialogues in world music—and Kirkley considers Sahel Sounds to be a hub for all of the above. He especially emphasizes the importance of a global audience, inclusive of both Western and Nigerien listeners.
"As much as Mdou plays in the West, he's going to continue to play in weddings in Niger," Kirkley said. "That's his real bread and butter. He can't get to a place where he can't make music for his fans back home because that's where his heart lies."
Tellingly, one of the most popular videos on Kirkley's YouTube account is one of Moctar playing at a local wedding in his hometown of Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger. He hoists an electric guitar in the middle of an outdoor crowd so comfortably enmeshed that elbows and hips bump against each other. Moctar bobs and sways with the confidence and concentration of Hendrix. The crowd whoops and hollers and claps along as he grooves to his popular song "Afelan"—a beloved local classic that went viral via the exchange of SIM card MP3s on mobile phones. It's this energy—the kind that flourishes in intimate, joyful spaces—that Moctar hopes to emulate in his tour across the United States. It's his first tour of the country with a full band.
"Mdou showed up in Los Angeles and they were like, This is America! and then we were in Iowa and they said, This is America! and now we're in Louisville, so it gives a good impression of how vast and different the U.S. is," Kirkley says. "This is like, the apogee of the whole process where the musicians behind the music can also travel. Music provides a chance to really open those doors."