Mdou Moctar - Niger EP Vol. 1 & Niger EP Vol. 2 Music Album Reviews

Mdou Moctar - Niger EP Vol. 1 & Niger EP Vol. 2 Music Album Reviews

Mdou Moctar - Niger EP Vol. 1 & Niger EP Vol. 2 Music Album Reviews
Recorded in the Tuareg guitarist’s home country over the past five years, these live and alternate takes offer the chance to hear his music in the cultural context in which he forged it.

Mdou Moctar’s Niger EP Vol. 1 begins, somewhat incongruously, with the star Tuareg guitarist shredding along to a single tinny drum-machine loop for 13 minutes straight. Moctar is one of the world’s most exciting players, and his improvising on “Imouhar (Drum Machine Version)” is mostly spectacular, diving and pirouetting through a low-slung groove so similar to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” that you practically expect him to start singing about chopping down mountains with the edge of his hand. Still, 13 minutes is a long time for any soloist to sustain musical interest on their own, especially when the accompaniment has all the rhythmic spark of a karaoke backing track. At times, Moctar seems to be coasting, or casting about for his next move, which he probably is, given that this sounds more like a rehearsal tape than a recording intended for wide release. 

As an opening gambit—and followed by another seven minutes of drum-machine jamming on the second track—it gives the false sense that the EP and its companion volume are the sort of releases that will only appeal to the already converted, for whom even the artist’s stray thoughts are worthy of deep investigation. That’s unfortunate, because the two Niger EPs, filled with live and alternate versions of songs from across Moctar’s catalog, recorded in his home country at various dates between 2017 and the present, are otherwise joyous, communal, and inviting, with much more to offer than solitary noodling. 

Before touring the world and eventually signing to Matador, Moctar made his living performing at weddings, like many other Tuareg guitarists. Many of the tracks on the EPs were recorded at such celebrations, and the atmosphere of the party seeps in around the edges of the music: a whoop from the assembled crowd, polyrhythmic handclaps keeping time, a nearby vehicle revving up and driving off as a song winds down. For listeners who may never attend a Nigerien wedding, it’s a chance to hear Moctar’s music in the context in which he forged it. 

“Iblis Amghar,” which opens Niger EP Vol. 2, is more representative of the records as a whole than the Vol. 1 opener. It strips away the rock drum kit that propels the version Moctar recorded for 2015’s Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, replacing it with sparse hand percussion and claps. Despite the languid arrangement, or because of it, this rendition of “Iblis Amghar” is even more arresting than the studio version. By adorning relatively slow and simple melodies with quick grace notes, Moctar turns his electric guitar into something flickering and unstable, with pitches that seem to warp in and out of each other, changing for slivers of moments before snapping back into their familiar previous shapes.

Some part of the EPs’ magic comes from the recording fidelity itself, which varies significantly from track to track, creating a distinct sonic world for each. “Ibitilan” is scorched with distortion and flecked with raucous crowd noise, giving its pummeling full-band groove a distinctly punk-rock edge. “Chimoumounin” seems to glide on the breeze, its vaporous mix of guitar treble and crash-cymbal shimmer a serendipitous match for its weightlessly ascending chords. As with a particularly musty Grateful Dead bootleg, it’s tough to tell how much of the recording’s uncanny aspect is a deliberate effect of the band versus an accident of the tape. For a listener at home, it doesn’t particularly matter. 

Nearly all of the recordings on the two EPs are previously unreleased. Two exceptions are the live versions of “Nakanegh Dich” and “Asditke Akal,” both of which appeared on the deluxe edition of last year’s Afrique Victime. The “Nakanegh Dich” presented here is identical to that earlier version, while “Asditke Akal” gets an additional 30 seconds or so of instrumental introduction that was evidently cut from the tape on the previous release. Given that both the Afrique deluxe edition and the Niger EPs are pitched at completist fans, some of whom will surely buy both, it’s a mild disappointment that those two tracks appear again here. Had Matador focused exclusively on the previously unreleased recordings, which are uniformly excellent, and perhaps cut one or both of the two long drum machine workouts, Niger could have fit snugly onto a single disc. 

Though Moctar is thoroughly rooted in traditional Tuareg music, he presents himself to the world as a rock artist—the kind of guy who made a movie inspired by Prince and cites Eddie Van Halen as a major influence. It would be a mistake to hear the raw renditions of the Niger EPs as being somehow truer to the spirit of his music than the auteurist visions on his proper albums, rather than simply presenting another side of his artistry. Take “Layla,” a beautiful song rendered as simply as possible on Niger Vol. 1, with little more than Moctar’s voice and acoustic guitar. The arrangement on Afrique Victime is only marginally more elaborate, but the extra touches matter: swells of noise during the chorus, subtle electric leads, the acoustic guitar recorded closely enough to capture its sparkling, tactile essence. As the Niger EPs demonstrate, a field recorder pointed in the general direction of a band in the middle of a wild party can capture a lot of life. But for some things, you have to head into the studio. 

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Mdou Moctar - Niger EP Vol. 1 & Niger EP Vol. 2 Music Album Reviews Mdou Moctar - Niger EP Vol. 1 & Niger EP Vol. 2 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on January 03, 2023 Rating: 5


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