Album cover with a black bird on the cover.

Review: Mdou Moctar – Funeral For Justice

Music

Mdou Moctar
Funeral For Justice
Matador
Street: 05.03
Mdou Moctar = Abdallah Oumbadougou + Jimi Hendrix 

Niger and rock music go way back, almost to the start of American classic rock. The Hendrix era with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd didn’t just take hold in the UK and US. It may be more accurate to say all of North Africa (or all of Africa) and rock (and blues) music go way back. Much of Africa still remained under cruel colonialist rule or heavy influence late into the ‘70s and ‘80s, during which time many aspects of Western music took root and blended in with the traditional sounds of the area. 

The band Mdou Moctar, belonging to the Tuareg nomadic ethnic group that makes up much of the Saharan region, is a late-stage result of the mix of US, French and traditional Tuareg music which is largely called Assouf or Tishoumaren (ⵜⵉⵛⵓⵎⴰⵔⴻⵏ). Their newest album, Funeral for Justice, sonically stays true to the band’s sound, but lyrically is a strong deviation from their earlier works. Mdou Moctar is the first Assouf band to hit it big in the West since Songhoy BluesMusic In Exile dropped in 2015. Moctar’s previous record, Afrique Victime (2021), cemented their status with American listeners. The live recordings of wailing guitars and cheering audiences on that album are incredible and larger than life, seemingly vintage and entirely new at the same time. Their first American tour in 2017, though short, was memorable and proved that there is a continuous desire for non-American music in the West—so much so that they were given a solid spot on this year’s Coachella lineup. 

Mdou Moctar is part of a modern recreation of the Assouf genre (some now call it desert rock, and no, not Joshua Homme’s “desert rock”) that embraces many more elements of American classic rock, swapping out much of the traditional percussion instruments for a Western drum kit and embracing the use of modern guitar pedals to bend and distort the traditional Tuareg sounds. Modern production has reached the genre in full force within the last ten years, which gives Moctar’s records the clean and tight sound that other Assouf musicians lack the resources to create in final recordings. In many ways, this shift is just the commercialization of a viable sound and acts as another core disruption to a genre rocked by American blues and classic rock influences. 

In the Assouf lineage, Mdou Moctar produces the most in-your-face and wall-shaking music the genre has to offer. The lead man Mahamadou Souleymane (M.dou) has quickly become one of the most revered modern guitarists both in Northern Africa and the American West (and a lefty at that!). His remaining band doesn’t lack skill and rhythm-guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim and bassist Mikey Coltun are all extremely talented musicians. Souleymane sings almost entirely in the Tamasheq language and many of the choruses are chanted by the rest of the band, a traditional “call-and-response” style that is characteristic of Assouf music. While his previous projects have stayed groovy and joyful, Funeral For Justice is a deeply anti-colonial project with blaring solos and bone-crushing percussion. Starting from the titular track “Funeral For Justice” pulls no punches: “Dear African leaders, hear my burning question / Why does your ear only heed France and America? / They misled you into giving up your lands / They delightfully watch you in your fraternal feud / They possess the power to help out but chose not to / Why is that? When your rights are trodden upon.” Musically, the track is bold and winding, punctuated by strong chords that match the beat of the drum before leading into Souleymane’s crooning matched with the same call-and-response backing vocals from the band. The Tuareg people have been left largely with out any employment opportunities and the work that does exist is miserable physical labor. The wealth distribution of much of North Africa is considerably worse than most of world, with half of the population taking only 9% of the available wealth. Souleymane asks the important questions: Why answer to your previous colonizers when your country’s people are unemployed and poor? 

The best track on the album, “Imouhar,” speaks on the slow assimilation and loss of Tuareg culture: “Imouhar, you know this indeed we have a written history / Written in books and the whole world knows it,” and later, “Tuareg turbans and camels, symbols of our legacy and pride / Imouhar why are you abandoning your language, Tamasheq? / You stopped speaking it / You stopped writing it.” The track begins quietly, almost as if it’s playing in the other room, until about a minute in where the lead guitar screams right in your face and the drums beat you in the back. “Imouhar” leans more into a groove than many of the tracks on this album that I love. Of course, when your country suffers under massive inequities, loss of jobs and ecological ruin, your culture will be sold off too, as this song illustrates. The importance of bands like Mdou Moctar is that they preserve the base sound of Tuareg music, the vocal stylings and, most importantly, the language. It would be relatively easy, and preferred for American audiences, for Souleymane to sing in English so that he can be more accessible to English speakers. And yet, singing in Tamasheq is its own form of rebellion. The audience will get on Mdou Moctar’s page, not the other way around. 

Note: At the time of writing, the two songs I have mentioned are the only ones that have been fully translated, due to the fact that they were released as promo singles. This won’t remain true forever, of course, but there is an interesting opportunity here for non-Tamasheq speaking audiences to listen to an album whose lyrics cannot yet be fully known. Other songs on the album solidify the ringing and thumping sound that Mdou Moctar has made theirs. “Djallo #1” is a distorted, fully instrumental guitar solo that opens with traditional Tuareg plucking which fades perfectly into “Oh France” and its dark synths sound like many old -school metal tracks. This album contains so much variance in its sounds that, at times, it feels like a grab bag of iconic metal and rock bands of days gone. 

It is often hard for American audiences to engage with the direct meaning of most conscious music, both local and foreign (Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry,” anyone?). And yet it is key that we do, as music is one of our strongest forms of expression and liberation. Funeral For Justice asks the same questions Frantz Fanon did of Africa in 1961: “So, comrades, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than follow Europe?” The question, especially in Mdou Moctar’s case, is rhetorical and has been asked for decades. Mdou Moctar was stranded in the US following the right-wing coup d’état of the Niger government last July. Many musicians and fans have funded their stay of undetermined length, but this illustrates the necessity of their music, especially in Niger itself and across North Africa. You can listen to the new album on all streaming platforms and follow them on their Instagram @mdou_moctar for future projects and collaborations. –wphughes

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