In Praise Of Mdou Moctar (And Guitar Solos In General)

About two and a half minutes into Afrique Victime, the new album by Nigerian guitar phenom Mdou Moctar, the music explodes at you in a way that records often don’t anymore.

At the start of opening track “Chismiten,” Moctar sings in his native Tamasheq — a Tuareg language spoken by nomadic tribes from North Africa — about the dangers of “being so jealous and insecure” and how he’s praying to God for help in avoiding those behaviors. But Moctar doesn’t seem all that interested in talking about sin. Instead, he wants to show God’s fearsome power in his music.

Around the 2:20 mark, he steps away from the mic and leans into his Fender Telecaster. At first, his playing is slow and wandering, like he’s trying to locate a coherent train of thought. After about a minute, his guitar gathers speed and intensity. His tone is fierce and ecstatic, like a violin being played at a fever pitch. (Fans of Superwolves, the recent album by Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy that Moctar guests on, will recognize this fevered sound immediately.) After about two minutes, he sounds spent. But then, suddenly, he fires up back again, emitting an incredible squall of violent noise. Moctar plays a guitar solo like LeBron James dunks a basketball — what some might see as an indulgence, they see as a demonstration of power, skill, and sheer determination to never be conquered by anyone.

For Moctar, this determination derives from his background as a man raised by a devout Muslim family in Agadez, Niger. Faced with ambivalent parents and a dearth of music stores, Moctar was forced to build his first guitar out of wood and bicycle cables, a story that sounds straight out of the mythology of “Johnny B. Goode.” I first heard him play on 2019’s Illana (The Creator), a vibrant and bracingly loud ripper of an album that made the 35-year-old Moctar the hottest rising star in a scene that also includes the Tuareg legacy act Tinariwen and fellow desert blues star Bombino.

Afrique Victime is loaded with moments where Moctar steps out of the song in order to ram his guitar directly into your guts. He does this for emotional effect, bending and blurring notes with the furious energy that defines one of his most obvious influences, Jimi Hendrix. But you suspect that Moctar also believes that ripping off a sick solo is extremely dope, which on this record it absolutely is. It might even make you ask: Why don’t we hear guitar solos more often these days?

When the great Eddie Van Halen — who Moctar has also cited as an influence — died in October, it felt like witnessing the passing of the world’s most accomplished blacksmith. In his prime, Van Halen was acknowledged as our reigning guitar hero, a designation that doesn’t really exist in 2021. This is not to say that nobody plays guitar anymore, as some overheated pundit is bound to inevitably declare every few years, only for some other pundit to inevitably declare a few years after that that “guitars are back, baby!” Let me be clear, as a person who receives at least 100 music PR emails every day: There were many, many guitar bands yesterday. There are many, many guitar bands today. And there will be many, many guitar bands tomorrow.

But the concept of the guitar hero — a virtuoso player who is singled out for mega-stardom because of their instrumental prowess — seems to have mostly passed. Yes, you still have master guitarists soloing away in the jam, blues, and jazz scenes, like Trey Anastasio of Phish and Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band. But closer to the mainstream, guitarists tend to stress other aspects of their musicality beyond an ability to play a lot of notes hard and fast for minutes at a time in the middle of songs.

For instance, the most majestic guitar record of 2020 was Live Drugs, a concert album by The War On Drugs in which the band’s frontman and lead guitarist, Adam Granduciel, extends several tracks with dazzling solos. But Granduciel is first and foremost a songwriter and record maker who utilizes the guitar as part of a larger sonic tapestry, rather than as a focal point. The same can be said Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, whose excellent forthcoming LP due next month, Jubilee, concludes with an unabashedly grand three-minute guitar solo that evokes Prince’s iconic shredding on “Purple Rain.” But like Granduciel, Zauner is “more” than just a guitar player; the solo ultimately is meant to express an emotional truth embedded in her album, not how freaking good she is at guitar. They’re more like guitar workers than guitar heroes.

Even artists who are known first as guitarists tend to shy away now from the sort of show-offy, “look at me!” theatricality that defined the age of Hendrix, Clapton, Page, and Van Halen. Players such as Yasmin Williams, William Tyler, Bill MacKay, and Daniel Bachman are textualists more interested in creating unique and striking sounds from their instruments, rather than ripping technically impressive (but otherwise conventional) solos. Even Ryley Walker, whose recent Course In Fable ranks among 2021’s best indie records, favors the soloing style of ’70s prog and ’90s post-rock, a wonkier approach that doesn’t quite square with the populist hero worship that a person like Eddie Van Halen inspired.

I suppose there are good reasons to move beyond the guitar hero archetype. For one thing, it led to a fair amount of excessive, self-indulgent, and boring music. (Like about 85 percent of Eric Clapton’s output.) There’s also something chauvinistic about putting a shirtless dude (because it was almost always a shirtless dude back then) who can wheedle-wheedle-wheedle with great proficiency on a pedestal, as if that’s somehow the be-all, end-all of music.

On the other hand, when it’s done well, it can be exhilarating to hear someone wheedle-wheedle-wheedle with great proficiency! The beauty of an expertly performed guitar solo is how it breaks free from the rigid structure of a melody, in order to simulate the feeling of briefly (or perhaps not that briefly) exploring previously uncharted territories of the mind, soul, and spirit. Put another way: A great solo is exciting on a primal, lizard-brain level. It’s musical but it’s also athletic, in that it spotlights the extreme edge of human potential. The fact that most people can’t do this is both the point and the problem — in the wrong hands, a guitar solo can turn a rock star into an elitist megalomaniac. (Or perhaps an anti-lockdown activist.)

But in the right hands — like a man who aspires to make music that feels like the wide and windy expanse of an endless desert — a guitar solo can sound like freedom. The physicality on display explains why so many guitarists and air-guitarists alike are often reduced to making goofy faces that express a unique combination of pleasure, surprise, and even pain. The visceral adrenaline rush of a killer guitar solo can almost be too much.

On Afrique Victime, the purest rush occurs on the title track, which is also the album’s most overtly political song. Moctar, a frequent critic of French colonialism and the devastating impact it has had on his country, rails about how “Africa is a victim of so many crimes / if we stay silent it will be the end of us.” But, again, it’s his guitar that speaks most forcefully. And, like he does on “Chismiten,” he gives over almost half of his song to a long, fiery guitar solo that stands apart as the album’s angriest and also most rock ‘n’ roll moment.

The violence and indignation of the lyrics achieves full expression in his playing, which starts at “face-melter” speed and picks up from there. There are some lightning-quick, Van Halen-style arpeggios, but this is him working mostly in “Machine Gun” era Hendrix mode, where the velocity and extreme volume signify a deeper cultural narrative about fear and death. As the minutes roll on, the cumulative effect of all those notes is stunning — your eardrums feels as ravaged as Moctar’s home country.

Western audiences won’t know what Moctar is singing about without a set of translated lyrics. But that guitar solo speaks a universal language.

Afrique Victime is out today via Matador. Get it here.