Mdou (pronounced mmdou) Moctar, the Abalak, Niger-based musician, packed a New Haven venue for the third time in just over 15 months on Thursday night, playing at the State House this time, edging north in capacity from his prior two outings at Lyric Hall. Rick Omonte, who booked the show, might know why.
Moctar trades in the kind of Saharan guitar music that is perhaps one of the most precious commodities that the traditionally nomadic Tuareg tribes of the Sahel export. In fact, he has become something of a standard bearer for the newest generation of so-called “desert blues” guitarists.
Among keen-eared, internationally minded music listeners, Moctar has become a bit of a legend, and not for nothing. The guy has an undeniably fascinating back story. He was self-taught on a homemade guitar. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a wedding singer. His initial celebrity rose locally on a network of cellphone sim card swapping, a trend captured on the compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones. Notably, all the vocals on his first record are Autotuned (and it actually works). In 2015, he starred in the first Tuareg-language film ever, a remake of Prince’s Purple Rain entitled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, that apparently, due to the lack of a Tamesheq word for purple, translates to Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It.
Mythmaking aside, Moctar’s music sits embedded in the tradition of decades of Nigerien and Malian guitar groups. It is music that sounds distinctly of its origins. His windswept guitar wafts around on the vast dunes of the soft and sturdy rhythm section. His compositions roam, often meandering around one chord for the entirety of a song stretching past the 10-minute mark
But fundamentally this music does what all good music does. It hits you and it stays. And even among a glut of superlative Tuareg musicians, Moctar stands out. His music is sentimental, maintaining an emotional weight but avoiding melodrama. It has the kind of rhythm that compels, and despite all the atmosphere, the music has bite. The guitars are heavy and spiked with distortion and just a touch of chorus shimmer. Moctar wears his Hendrix worship on his sleeve and can explode from clear skied, ambient twinkle to fireworks display in an instant.
Simply put, the dude rips.
Visibly standing well over six feet tall with hands that make his guitar neck look pencil thin, he has an undeniable physical presence on stage. He typically performs wrapped in his traditional tagelmust, an indigo-dyed turban and veil that covers all but his intent eyes. To see Moctar playing is to be caravanned into his musical world, surreal and enveloping.
So how does Mdou Moctar go from playing weddings in Niger to playing three near-sold out shows in front of an eclectic mix of Nutmeggers in the course of a year and a half?
Rick Omonte is not the kind of guy to remind you that it doesn’t happen by accident, but it’s worth trusting that, well, it didn’t happen by accident.
Omonte, who moonlights as bassist in local psychedelic roustabouts Mountain Movers and Headroom, now books shows regularly for the State House (if you see “Shaki Presents” on a bill, that’s him). But when he booked the first Moctar show in New Haven at Lyric Hall, putting on shows was just a passion project.
“I knew I could book shows at the time,” he said. “If any awesome sick bands were to come to town, I would bend over backwards to book them, but I wasn’t putting on shows on the regular.”
Omonte’s obsession with the music of Moctar and his labelmates at Sahel Sounds turned into pie-in-the-sky, half joking emails to label head Christopher Kirkley, inquiring about the availability of acts halfway around the world, dreaming big but expecting little.
“Hey, I play your records all the time on my radio show,” an email might start (Omonte has a radio show on WPKN out of Bridgeport, third Wednesday of every month from 8 to 11 p.m.). “Is there a list of demands to get them to play over here?”
One day Kirkley responded, informing Omonte that Sahel Sounds was working on a tour for Moctar and finally there was a chance that a show could actually happen. Working without the backing of a venue, “the cost of the show was coming straight out of pocket if the show failed, if the door didn’t work out,” Omonte said.
But he was determined. “Yes, I am willing to take this risk. Yes, this is tangible. Yes, I have the network to pull this off. Yes. I want to do this. I know people like this music. They just aren’t familiar with it yet. Those kinds of decisions happen lightning fast.”
And so it was that Mdou Moctar was booked to play New Haven on his first North American tour. With some heavy promotion from bandmates and friends aided by some undeniably brilliant performance videos that surfaced online (if you haven’t, make sure you find half an hour to devote to the YouTube rabbit hole that is live Mdou Moctar videos), the show sold out.
Omonte’s thoughts on the success of the first show: “OK. It’s on.”
But what accounts for the continued success in bringing Moctar and other international acts like him to New Haven?
“Some of it, I really hate to say it, I hate this phrase — ‘educating people’ — but it’s about turning them on,” Omonte said. “You like that band, you just don’t know it yet, but I know it, I know it for a fact.”
But Omonte doesn’t consider himself an arbiter of taste; he’s just a passionate fan who wants to share the music that he sincerely loves, knowing the risk involved. “Sometimes I’ll call up Redscroll Records,” a vinyl mecca in Wallingford, “and I’ll talk to Rick and say, ‘what do you think about this act?’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, that would be real cool to see, but I think I sold one copy,’ and so I’ll get off the phone and think, ‘yeah, I got to do this show.’”
Omonte’s ears are also quick to hear the connections between music like Moctar’s and music closer to home. “There are so many easy tangents to psychedlia or to punk,” he said. He mentioned that Moctar likes to play with heavier psychedelic rock acts and has been playing shows with “the punks and the freaks and the weirdos.” It stands to reason that the fans of the bands that Moctar seeks out to play with become fans of Moctar’s. People may show up on the strength of the opener, then stay because the music Moctar is playing is very grounded in an appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll — and because the music is fantastic.
Omonte mentioned speaking with Moctar’s manager before the show. “We were talking about what the next year is going to look like and if you had told me five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that would be possible — over the next year, I should be ready for four to six shows of this calibre, this kind of potential.” But there is plenty more to come with the full force of the State House at his back. Ask anyone who was at the show and I’m confident that the primary takeaway from the experience was what every show strives for: damn fine music.