Saharan-guitarist Mdou Moctar brings riffs, rhythm to Starline Social Club

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The hazy, hallowed Victorian hall of Oakland’s Starline Social Club was set for an evening with Mdou Moctar Sept. 29. Lights befitted the venue’s relatively small stage with cool tones, and smoke rose up from around the pulpit. Mdou Moctar, who the four-piece band is named after, emerged from the makeshift wings, and quickly surveyed the crowd with a slight smile. Without an introduction, Moctar and his group began to play his first song of the set: A cyclical rock song where riffs reigned supreme. 

The Tuareg singer and guitarist showed incredible range throughout the night in playing tracks off of his new album, Afrique Victime. Drawing inspiration from classic American rock, with Moctar himself learning from Van Halen videos back in Niger, the group also brought Sahel-inspired sounds and regional traditional vibrations to last Wednesday’s welcoming crowd. 

Many of the songs had a pulsating sensation, with the snare of drummer Souleymane Ibrahim or the consistent rhythms of bassist Mikey Coltun maintained each song’s theme. Throughout the set, the repeated hypnosis of Moctar’s tracks would suddenly be contrasted with a drastic change in tempo, as the group mastered the element of surprise. With each twist and turn in a different temporal direction, Moctar would grin at the crowd, hinting that he had more tricks up his sleeve for the evening. 

As a performer, Moctar controlled the crowd with minimal interactions, besides briefly sharing his gratitude for the ability to share his music in person once more. He had an affinity for soaking up the cheers following his solos, which reverberated around the venue. Moctar’s fingerpicking ability was unmatched, and his ability to also deliver stunning vocals simultaneously is deserving of high praise. 

The group slowed things down with “Tala Tannam,” built on repeated claps and lighter guitar melodies containing trills and mordents. Moctar and guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane’s vocals created such warmth in the venue that the crowd member’s swaying shoulders looked more like a collective wave than individual reactions. The visceral effect of the whole evening made for a greater listening experience. The music was the main focus of the night, especially as Moctar and his group sang in his traditional Tuareg language that the audience was largely unfamiliar with. Even though Moctar is fluent in French and speaks English quite well, he purposefully sings in Tuareg to understand music through an anti-colonial lens. 

Afrique Victime signifies a great deal for Moctar, as lyrics and themes of each track talk of his local corrupted political state, and Western country’s contribution to that very corruption. Moctar’s lyrics are rather pointed, as he speaks to slavery, terrorism, women’s rights and colonialism. The namesake song has an extended introduction, with Moctar really drawing out each vocal proclamation. His passion and dedication to his craft and politics were clearly communicated, even through lyrics unbeknownst to most. The seven-minute song spun into a wild frenzy with each group member shredding solos and eliciting a lively crowd response. 

The famed track “Chismiten” off of the new album was the band’s encore — and even without its signature sound of crickets in the background, the track still revitalized the crowd. The encore summed up the night; the cyclical nature of the song dashed with style and tempo changes to keep the crowd guessing and dancing the whole while. 

As the band wraps up the West Coast leg of their tour, before returning to the East Coast next spring and heading to Europe afterward, their performance at the Starline Social Club marked the success of their new album — their ability to create an echo-chamber of cyclical charm in a single space remains second to none. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.