The virtuosity of Mdou Moctar, the “Jimi Hendrix of the Desert”

“Ilana (The Creator)”, a new album, is a thrilling blend of desert blues and Western rock

GROWING UP in Niger, Mdou Moctar listened to traditional Tuareg music. Women played the imzad, a one-stringed fiddle, and the goatskin tindédrum, while men trilled on the shepherd’s flute. Takamba and assouf, guitar-driven styles, were his favourite. “I wanted to play guitar, but couldn’t find one where I lived,” Mr Moctar says via email. “I made one by hand out of wood and bicycle cables.” He practised diligently even though, at the time, music was a creative hobby rather than a plausible career. “When I was young I wanted to become an engineer who digs wells,” Mr Moctar says. “We always need water in the desert.”  

Born in 1986, he was still young when the “desert blues” genre—a reference to the shared roots of the music of the Mississippi Delta and the West African desert—emerged. Ali Farka Touré entranced listeners with his superposition of different melodies on the guitar; in 1994 he won a Grammy for “Talking Timbuktu”, a collaboration with Ry Cooder, an American musician. Tinariwen, a collective from Mali formed in 1979, worked with traditional instruments in the assouf style, but added electrified sounds, pop influences and politicised lyrics. 

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