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Mdou Moctar At Pitchfork 2023: “Make People Happy”

Written by on July 26, 2023

Before taking the stage at Pitchfork Music Festival, Nigerien artist Mdou Moctar sat down with Vocalo’s Imani Warren to discuss his bandmates, remix album and his worldwide reach.

UPDATE: Since the original publication of this conversation, Mdou Moctar’s beloved Niger plunged into a violent political upheaval and the band is unable to return home.

The band posted on their Instagram the following statement:

“Last week while we were on tour our home of Niger was plunged into chaos when a Coup took place. As a result, we are unable to return home to our loved ones and must remain abroad indefinitely. We have launched this @gofundme to help offset the living costs associated with that. We are so appreciative of our fans and community and their unending support and are so appreciative of whatever you are able to do to help us in this unprecedented and scary time. Thank you so much.”

As of August 4 (in a span of two days), contributors doubled their initial goal of $50,000. Fans and supporters can learn more here.

Mdou Moctar’s revolutionary and hypnotic sound is what sets him apart from anyone. Known as the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara,” Mdou uses unconventional sounds to deliver his message of change and evolution. Born in a Niger village, Moctar’s family didn’t approve of electronic music — so he created his first guitar using bicycle cables as strings. Through a genre called Desert Blues or Tuareg Guitar Music, Moctar blends what is described on his website as “full-blast noise and guitar shredding, field recordings [and] drums rhythms” to create the sound he plays. 

Mdou Moctar during his set at Pitchfork Music Festival on July 23. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Moctar’s popularity had humble beginnings, first gaining traction through the sharing of his song from SIM cards on cell phones in Western Africa, which were commonly used in place of personal computers. In 2011, record label Sahel Sounds released an album containing nine popular songs shared among cell phones with limited commercial availability. The album, Music From Saharan Cellphones, featured Moctar’s song “Tahoultine.”

Over the years he continued perfecting his craft, constantly practicing and even playing at weddings. In 2015, he starred in the Nigerien film Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, an adaptation of the classic American film Purple Rain starring Prince. This filmed gained him critical acclaim throughout his country and community. 

Imani Warren and Mdou Moctar behind the scenes at Pitchfork Music Festival on July 23. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

“Its not the place, the most important [thing] is to make the people happy. […] The best gift is to make someone smile.”

– Mdou Moctar

After winning the approval of his family and community, Moctar went on to release his album Ilana (The Creator) in 2019, followed up by album Afrique Victime in 2021. In addition to these, in 2022 Moctar released Afrique Refait, a remix album for Afrique Victime. Moctar feels both albums are crucial for listeners to hear due to their sonic diversity.

“It is very important because it’s a different sound,” Moctar said. “The first is in studio, the album Afrique Victime, and then the next one is with different crowds, like [at] home. […] It’s a different feeling you get.”

Moctar and his band gave a dynamic performance at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago on July 23 — but first he sat down with Vocalo’s Imani Warren to discuss choosing bandmates, his most recent album and language differences, as well as what crowds are like back home versus worldwide.

Imani Warren: Hi! Welcome to Vocalo Radio. I’m Imani Warren today here with Mdou Moctar, live at Pitchfork Festival. How are you today, Mdou? 

Mdou Moctar: I’m good. How’s it going? 

IW: I know that you’ve been on tour recently. How’s your tour been going? 

MM: It’s going well, yeah.

IW: Yeah? Have you had any favorite spots so far?

MM: Every place, to me, I love it. Because of them … my fans. I love them.

IW: What’s your favorite part about performing on stage?

Mdou Moctar at Pitchfork Music Festival on July 23. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

MM: Yeah, good question, but it’s hard for me to say something. Because, for me, the most important [thing] is to make people happy. Even if it’s three person, just to see the smile in their faces, that is the most important for me.

IW: That’s a really good answer. So you’re traveling with your band, correct?

MM: Yeah, I do.

IW: So how did you pick the people that you travel with? How did you pick your band?

MM: Yeah, I started with them in home, like Ahmoudou, my rhythm guitar. He was with me when he was a little young, I’m gonna say, that was long time ago. Kind of like 12 years ago, or something like that, or more than that. Yeah, 13 years, something like that. And then my drummer, he’s the one who played with me when he was younger as well, because he’s the youngest in the band. He played with me, just local, just in home, doesn’t travel with me in the tour. And then, when I feel like he’s professional, he started to be more better. And then, he’s in the band. 

IW: That’s amazing. I’m glad that you got to see him progress through that. So I know that you started playing guitar on a makeshift guitar with strings from a bike, yeah? So how did you end up getting better? How did you end up perfecting your craft?

MM: It is a good question. You know, I started, of course I built my first guitar, the same you said. And then… if you work hard, you’re gonna see the progress. And then, we practice a lot. We’re touring a lot, and it’s going well, yeah.

IW: So I know that you just, a little bit ago, let out Afrique Refrait. Right?

MM: Sorry?

IW: Afrique Refrait, is that how you say it? Your remix album?

MM: It’s Afrique Victime.

IW: Afrique Victime, yes. And then did you have a remix album for it as well? 

MM: Yeah. 

IW: Why was it important for you to have that remix album as well?

MM: It is very important, because it’s different sounds. At first, it’s like in studio, the album, Afrique Victime. And then, the next one, it’s with different crowd, like in home. And then it’s different feeling, you get what I mean? Yeah, it’s something like that. Something I love to do. Yeah, different crowds at home, like young generation clubs and dancing. It’s like a different, little bit, for me.

IW: Do you think that’s the biggest difference from performing at home versus in America, the crowd’s more lively?

MM: I can say that it’s different, just feeling, you understand what I mean? Here, the people doesn’t understand my language. They just listen to my music, and then when they have the time, they read what I’m saying. And then in my home, it’s different. Everyone hear my language, you see what I mean? And then they try to sing with me, and then that’s a little different, but I love them. I love, again, American crowd and European crowd. They’re very nice. They try. They help me, they are nice with me. And then, the club, that is a big support, they come in to see my culture. It’s big hospitality for me.

IW: That’s amazing. You get to share with so many people and they can connect even without knowing the words. I think that’s really interesting. I completely see how that will be different, where you’re from. What do you think is your most favorite part about performing for the people where they get to sing with you, you get to represent the people where you’re from? 

MM: Sorry, say again?

Mdou Moctar at Pitchfork Music Festival on July 23. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

IW: When you’re performing in your home country, what’s the best and most fulfilling part about performing for people who speak your same language?

MM: It’s kind of like something, I don’t know, I’m gonna say natural, you get what I mean? Because they understand what I’m saying. And then some of them, I build the song with them. I ask them sometime, because when I write song, sometime I play with a friend and just ask them what do you think about what I’m saying? 

IW: While you’re performing?

MM: Yeah! Like, when I write new songs, I ask some friends, just at home or something like that, just, “What did you think? What is your idea? What do you guess? Is it good or what?”

IW: Yeah, “What do you like?” 

MM: And then you see that help a lot, for me. And then they understand the message direct, it doesn’t need no translation.

IW: No translation. 

MM: Yeah. They understand what I mean. It’s kind of good. But here, it is very, very important for me, touring around the world and tell them what I feel. Some of them, some of fans, they read what I’m talking about, and then they listen for the interview I does in different places. They understand what is the message. They see my culture. It’s something huge for me.

IW: It’s a big connector, I completely see that. And speaking of playing in different places, I’ve seen you play a guitar in the back of a car before. What do you think is the craziest place you’ve ever played your guitar?

MM: Sorry, say again. You see me where? 

IW: I’ve seen you play guitar in the backseat of someone’s car before. Online, on TikTok. 

MM: Yeah!

IW: And so I was wondering where’s the craziest, most wild place you’ve ever played your guitar?

MM: Yeah, I’m gonna answer the first question. You said when you see me, I’m playing the guitar in the back. I buy a new guitar, and then we was in taxi. That was in New York, and then I tried to see. And then I was with someone, the driver, he is nice when I take the guitar, say, “Wow, this sound is amazing.” And then I started to play, I feel like he’s happy. And then I just continue to play. 

IW: Natural.

MM: Yeah, he just love what we does, and then it was that. It’s new guitar I buy, and then I just played a little bit. For me, to be honest, it’s like what I’m saying for discussion. For me, it’s not the place. The important thing, it’s not the place for me. The most important is to make the people happy, you get what I mean? I don’t have the border in my heart. For me, the world is the same. I doesn’t care about the color, the country, city, venue, festival. It’s not — I don’t mind about stuff like that. For me, it’s when I see someone smiling, I give him smile. That is the most important, for me, not the place. You get what I mean? I never support the border. I never support the visa stuff. I never support like, just, “He’s white, he’s better than Black. He’s Black, he’s better than white.” I doesn’t care about the stuff like that, I hate that, to be honest. For me, the most important in the world is to be together and then see someone smiling, it’s the best thing. Because, for me, the best gift is to give to someone smiling. Make someone smile, and for me, it’s the best gift. Yeah, that’s what I feel.

IW: That’s beautiful. That’s a really great answer to that question, I appreciate it so much. And yeah, we’re at Pitchfork here today with Vocalo Radio, and this was an interview with Mdou Moctar. Thank you so much.

MM: Thank you for having us. Thank you so much. 

IW: I hope you have a great day! Thank you.

Keep up with Mdou Moctar on Instagram.

Interview and written introduction by Imani Warren

Audio production by Ayana Contreras, with support from Imani Warren

Photography and videography by Morgan Ciocca

Video editing by Omi Salisbury

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