LAST ROCK STAR: SOUND BAPTISM OF SAHARA'S MDOU MOCTAR

LAST ROCK STAR: SOUND BAPTISM OF SAHARA'S MDOU MOCTAR
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PHOTO: Mdou Moctar Band- from left- Ahmoudou Madassane, electric mbiraist Nova Z, Souleymane Ibrahim, Michael Coltun & Mdou Moctar 

If you were a musician in a band would you play live if it might be possible that heavily armed religious extremists in the region may roll up in jeep convertibles and open fire on you and all your fans? 

If you are Saharan guitar legend Mdou Moctar or a member of his band, that is not a hypothetical question. At least when he is playing live in his home country of Niger, the second poorest country in the world. In the past few years, foreign extremists have increased their presence in Niger and bordering Mali and has made it unsafe for any musician in this part of the Sahel to play live music. 

For fearless Mduo Moctar, the answer to the question above is a resounding yes, and as loud as possible! That is because unlike the overpaid old rock star phonies who dance on your paycheck every summer, Mdou Moctar is REAL rock star shit (Note to Wikipedia- this reporter has confirmed- according his passport- Mdou's birthday is 1/1/84.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mdou_Moctar).

It had been over a year and a half, December 27, 2019 to be exact since I saw a live concert. It was Pharoah Sanders at the Iridium in New York City. The former saxophone sidekick of John Coltrane from 1965 to Coltrane's death in 1967 is the last Coltrane apostle standing that was a part of Coltrane's final ensemble of musicians he worked with. 

A few days later on New Years Eve the first report of what was to change our lives forever when Chinese health officials publicly announced they were treating "27 patients" in the central city Wuhan for "viral pneumonia."  

Not many red flags went up that following New Years day morning. We had been here before in the past few decades and the virus was contained before an international outbreak. 

However, as with almost everything in the Trump presidency, traditional international norms and protocols were turned upside down. With a deadly virus running loose all the atmospherics for a perfect storm coalesced and that became 2020. 
Across the globe, every musician's spring/summer 2020 tour schedules began to fall like dominoes. Including Rage Against The Machine whose 2020 tour I had scheduled to cover the whole summer. 

I swore to myself that I would not go to a large concert again until the pandemic was "over." At the time LIVE NATION was speculating in 2020 that might be in the summer of 2022. 

Ten months after that disastrous year unfolded, post-Trump-post-insurrection-post-vaccination, the world is still seeing the effects of 2020. 

During the months of June and July there was hope that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. By August those and the rapid spread of Delta, those glimmers of hope collapsed quickly, just as New York City was hosting a "Homecoming Concert '' to celebrate the end of the pandemic. 

In June of 2021 I started looking and contacted various artists' summer tour schedules. I had gotten vaccinated (J&J) in early May and assumed as everyone else- including the CDC and the Biden administration- that it was time to pop the champagne bottles and celebrate victory. 

I had wanted to cover Dead & Company since they began touring in the fall of 2015. The new resurrection of the Dead included bassist Otel Burbridge and early 00's teen-heart-throb John Mayer. But something told me it was just too soon for such large crowds and to wait and see- even for their 8/23/21 show at Bethel Woods at the original 1969 concert site. 

The Milford Graves memorial concert hosted by Vision Festival (25) at the end of July was also on the itinerary. Yet after all the reports of random stabbings, mayhem and violence erupting downtown- along with the first signs of Delta emerging- I opted for the first ever VF LIVE STREAM. The festival itself served as a day-by-day chronology of COVID's resurgence. The festival's first day was maskless. Each day after more and more masks began to appear. 

Bassist and VF co-founder William Parker arranged a tribute to Milfrord Graves that is almost beyond description. As if a door between the living and the dead opened and celebrated life's eternity even after our earthly bodies are long discarded. With a countless number of horn players and drummers all wailing at full volume at the same time created a dronish-bee-hive whirlwind of beauty and color that pulsed out onto the streets, the skyscrapers above and through the internet. It was so mind blowing the usual musical and emotional barriers between live in person and streaming evaperated. If there was never another VF it could be said that the entire 25 year run ended on a high-water mark. 

And then there was Mdou Moctar. I contacted his new label- NYC's Matador Records- in early June and was set to meet with the Sarahian guitar legend from Niger on September 11, 2021- the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. 

As the summer unfolded I dropped every show I planned to attend, except for Mdou Moctar. I couldn't call and cancel. My brain or maybe it was my spirit would not allow me. I said to myself if the show cancels OK. If not...just wait and see.

I never had the opportunity to hear music from the Sahara live. Having followed Chris Kirkley label Sahel Sounds that sparked a small cultural revolution in "Rock" music in the teens-decade. Paralleling legendary rock promoter Bill Graham in the 1960's, Sahel Sounds turned on the Pacific Northwest and hipsters across America and Europe to a genuine organic rebirth of Rock going on in the region's largest desert in the world.  

Of the dozens of groups Chris signed to his pioneering label, two of the most dynamic bands of his stable have taken off. Les Filles de Illighadad and Mdou Moctar. These groups play what is labeled as "Terrag music" or "Desert Blues" but this incredibly fluid movement is really hard to pin down with labels for western music fans to grasp. Influences for these groups range from ancient archaic rhythms to Iron Maiden and hip-hop beats. 

Les Filles de Illighadad (LFdI means the three girls from Illighaded)- like with Grateful Dead early on with 1930's Memphis Jug Band and the Mississippi Sheiks covers- has electrified some of the oldest songs, melodies and rhythms in the unwritten African songbook. They are the first women Tuareg band ever and the most defiant and revolutionary group of musicians since Fela's Africa 1970 ensemble disbanded. 

LFdI's very existence is not just subversive, it is dangerous. Since extremist groups appeared on the scene in their region, even more. Nevertheless, like the early Dead- they have generated a small, but devout following. Their music ranges from jumpy heartbeat rhythmic based songs to quieter, heartfelt acoustic ballads.  

Mdou Moctar's bond with LFdI runs deep and Mduo's uber-gifted rhythm guitar, Abdoulay Madassane is also in LFdI and is the brother of LFDi lead singer Fatou Seidi Ghali. 

If you juxtaposition LFdI to the Dead, then the much louder and rowdier Mdou Moctar experience equates to the Allman Brothers. With heavy, guitar crunching improvised jams and soft acoustic ballads Mduo Moctar studio albums and live shows are a sonic blast of distortion pedal guitar crunch, hypnopic percussion and the most beautiful improved solos heard since John Coltrane walked the Earth. 

The sublime beauty and transcendent trance of Mdou Moctar's solos take the listener to a spiritual plain of color and eternal bliss not felt since Coltrane. Once it hits, you will feel it's presence evermore in pure silence.  Just close your eyes and you begin to hear the crackle of the amps feeding back and the wild horse-like run of a Moctar improvised solo rolling through your DNA. The music becomes a part of your being. More so than Santana, Garcia or Daune Allman combined. More so than dare I say...Hendrix and very much like the first time you heard Jimi strike and bend a high note on his ax, Mduou Moctar's musical universe and logos is also a bell that can not be unrung.  
Like Coltrane, Mdou is one of the very few handful of musicians capable of creating for the listener what is called a "Sound Baptism" for his listeners.  Although most Coltrane sound baptisms stem from record listing, with Mdou you can currently experience it live.
Like with John Coltrane or Milford Graves, hearing Mdou Moctar live is also a life altering event. 
 
When we drove by the newly renovated, Black owned Garden City Arts Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts and Mduo was standing right out front of the venue. When we first met, his smile was unusually genuine when we first met. 

There was no swag, attitude or egos in this band and their small tour van is not why. The way western musicians tend to "act" on the road is completely alien to the West African culture to the city of Agadez where Mdou is from. Even for American bassist and producer Michael Coltun, who was born in DC, the usual tour behaviors are absent. This is a serious band, doing improvisation on a high functioning-astral-plane-level. There is no time or space for that kind of western rock star ego trip bullshit. 

After a soundcheck and a break for prayer I spoke to Mdou for a little about his life and music. He is into Jimi and Eddie Van Halen, yet ironically does not like to play with whammy bars himself and has his own unique way of pressing down on the bridge with his hand. Prince is also an obvious source of inspiration, so much so that when a West African version Purple Rain titled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red In It) was rebooted in 2015, Mdou was cast as the leading role. 

Like Neil Young, Mdou augments his more extreme loud guitar jams with softer acoustic jams and ballads. Mduo is not just a guitarist he has a unique soulful voice that resonates well beyond language barriers. 

The first few songs of the set were acoustic and grooved just as fluidly as his later electric set. There is a sense of floating when you hear it live and have smoked a few bowls of strong hash beforehand. Although this reporter discovered during the sound check, you don't necessarily need the hash to experience it. 

Mdou's electric set on the other hand is more like a nighttime dune buggy race on hilly and bumpy terrain. You bounce around in back as the driver goes for broke. The multiple effects pedals on crank echoing through both Mdou and Ahmoudou's amps over the intense roller-coaster rhythms of drummer Souleymane Ibrahim melt time between the ancient past, the present and the future we have not yet seen. Like a radar scope timed to heart beat, the echoes of rhythm guitar crunch just hits you wave after wave as Mduo's mind bending solos take flight way out past the earth's orbit. 

Like an astronaut on earth who has experienced travel, the musical imprimpint Mdou band changed the way the stars looked as I drove home from the show. When I got home, just before midnight, I lit some candles outside in the backyard. The radioactive Housatonic River roared it's never ending orchestra of water splashing against rocks. Like a well wound clock, the cool mountain air floated down into the valley marking the end of summer. 

My entire life has been overshadowed by Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes and Trump. As I sat there in the quiet, candle lit night, it felt for at least a fleeting moment, that maybe the era of American Nixonian darkness that began on 1/20/1969 - the year of my birth- ended that night on 9/11/21. 

I popped open a bottle of Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey and had a shot in a thick Times-Square-tourist-shop-New-York-City-nighttime-skyline-shot-glass with the old Twin Towers I've had for the last 30 years. I thought about 9/11 and the ignorant, xenophobic 20 year aftermath of Bush's unnessercery 2003 invasion of Iraq that ultimately led to Trump's racist-sociopathic-pandemic-exploding presidency ending with a Trump lead MAGA terrorist attack on the Capitol Building just last January. 

So much death. So much American blood and treasure has been wasted at home and abroad since 9/11/01. 

From 9/11 to Iraq and Katrina to "America First," COVID-19 and 1/6/21 -not to mention the millions of innocent "collateral damage" in Afghanistan, Iraq and every other country America's shadow "war on terror" has scared-  this 20 year carnage has  finally come to an end just in time for major effects of climate change start to kick in.  

If there is any hope for humanity it lies within the heart of Mdou Moctar's band that represents the world as it should be, diverse with the concept of whiteness or white entitlement wiped clean. SOS RICK RUBIN, you want to spark another musical revolution, you need to cut a record with Mdou Moctar ASAP.

If there is any show you risk your life to see this fall, make sure it is Mduo Moctar, a transcendental musical experience that you will certainly never forget. 

Special thanks to Aaron Leitko and Jeremy Snyder (Pure Adults lead singer). 

MDOU MOCTAR TOUR 2021-22:

OCT01Music BoxSan Diego, CA

OCT02 Los Angeles, CA

OCT03 Lodge Room Highland ParkLos Angeles, CA

OCT04 Petaluma, CA

FEB27 2022 in support of Parquet CourtsAsheville, NC

FEB28 2022 supporting Parquet CourtsAthens, GA

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