Words by:
Photography: Kana Motojima

Mdou Moctar isn’t one to sit still. Over the past decade, the Niger-born guitarist has been gigging almost constantly, honing his raw-edged, wailing blend of desert blues and explosive rock on stages around the world.

Singing in Tamasheq and often dressed in a traditional tagelmust veil, Moctar – real name Mahamadou Souleymane – has become an axe-wielding cultural ambassador for his Tuareg people. His shows are as entrancing as they are unpredictable, as he delivers scorchingly propulsive songs that decry the lingering effects of European colonialism in Africa, backed by a tight trio of musicians he mostly met while gigging hundreds of weddings across Niger. 

“I don’t just sit down in the house with my guitar,” Souleymane says during a rare moment of stasis without his instrument, contently perched on a couch in New York. “I record with the sun and nature and everything that is going on around me. I need to know what my feelings are for the world and that connection is how I get ideas to write songs.”

This urge to create amid the atmospheric sounds of his environment – wherever that may be – informed Souleymane’s last album, the 2021 breakthrough Afrique Victime. His debut for U.S. indie tastemakers Matador Records, the album’s nine tracks were written and recorded in hotel rooms, backstage and on the tour bus during a never-ending sprawl of dates across Europe and North America. With its title referencing how Souleymane sees his continent being exploited by global powers, Afrique Victime contains whispers of birdsong and background noise interwoven with thundering guitars and longing vocals. 

“I make music to make people smile,” he says. “But when I witness the struggles of my people, to get water or work or freedom, I must write about it.” The album, and its social message, earned critical acclaim and propelled Souleymane back onto the road for three months of non-stop gigging, including arena shows opening for psych-pop giants Tame Impala. “It’s important for us to tour a lot because that’s how we work things out musically with each other,” bassist and producer Mikey Coltun says from the armchair next to Souleymane. “The Afrique Victime tour really showed us how much the band has grown. We attract a very diverse, energetic crowd and the more they give to us, the more we give back.”


It was back on the road in 2022 and 2023, feeding off this intense energy, that Souleymane wrote his latest album, Funeral for Justice. Inspired not only by the onstage adrenaline of touring, Souleymane’s writing was also processing the state of the world – in particular, the increasingly troubling socio-political situation back home. Despite having gained independence from France in 1960, the European nation retained a heavy influence in the country, expressed visibly by the unrelenting presence of the French military. Anti-French sentiment was constant and rising, alongside fear at the increased activity from terror groups. These tensions ultimately snapped when a right-wing military coup toppled the incumbent government, ousting the French army and closing the country’s borders in July 2023. 

At the time, Souleymane and his band were on a U.S. headline tour and the group suddenly found themselves stranded in the country after their run of dates had concluded. “We were so afraid because we didn’t know how our families were,” Souleymane says, head in his hands. “The airports were closed and you couldn’t send any money to Niger either.” The group set up a GoFundMe to cover their costs while they were stuck in America. By the time the borders reopened two months later, they had raised over $100,000 in donations from fans including Jack White.



Once they had made it back to see their families, they felt enraged by their powerlessness and the destructive influence of political manoeuvring. Souleymane filtered this fury through into his only means of expression: the music. On the move once more, over the course of a week in a makeshift studio in upstate New York, the group sharpened their spiralling jams and sense of injustice into nine tracks that are faster, louder and more intricate than any of the previous five albums Souleymane has released. If Afrique Victime rung out like a rallying cry for Souleymane’s people, Funeral for Justice is a guttural scream from the battlefield. The fret-tapping distortion of Oh France laments the European country’s occupation in Niger over a frenetic percussive rhythm, while the galloping group harmonies of Sousoume Tamacheq narrate the struggles of the Tuareg people who live across Mali, Algeria and Niger. The free-flowing guitar solos of Imouhar urge for the preservation of the Tamasheq language. The title track, however, is Souleymane fully unleashed, fingerpicking his Fender Stratocaster at breakneck speed. 

Souleymane may have been previously labelled as the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara”, thanks to his left-handed playing and affinity for distortion, but Funeral for Justice places him closer to the headbanging, finger-crunching dexterity of Eddie Van Halen, as he taps through fiendish polyrhythms to unleash his anti-colonial message. “I don’t feel like justice exists any more, and that’s why the album has its title,” Souleymane says, shifting back in his seat. “Crime is happening all over Africa. The world knows about it, yet no one does anything. I’m trying to explain what is going on around me, to show that we are still like slaves. Some countries are free on paper but not in reality. If you have African blood and African papers, you don’t feel equal.”


This discrimination has followed the band ever since they began touring. Prejudiced Home Office decision-making even caused them to cancel shows in the U.K. in 2017 and 2018 after they were rejected entry. “It’s never easy for these guys to get anywhere. They need visas for every place and it’s never-ending,” Coltun, who is originally from Washington D.C., sighs. “Going to the airport to pick them up, there’s always fear that they won’t come out. It feels like a big ‘fuck you’ to the system that tries to keep them away when they do make it through. It’s a really profound and beautiful thing for us to hug each other at those arrivals.”

In defiance of these border restrictions, Souleymane has made it a long way from humble beginnings. Growing up in the mining town of Arlit, north of Niger’s fifth-largest city Agadez, he was first introduced to the guitar after witnessing a local concert by Tuareg musician Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou. Completely taken by his searing style of playing, Souleymane set his heart on learning Oumbadougou’s instrument. However, his parents didn’t approve of this non-acoustic music, so he had to build his own rudimentary guitar from bicycle strings. Despite these obstacles, Souleymane soon discovered he had a knack for songwriting and, after upgrading to a proper guitar, began mastering his instrument by playing Tuareg assouf rock music at weddings and local celebrations. 

By 2008, Souleymane had self-released his debut album, Anar, which gained a grassroots following throughout the Sahel region thanks to its infectious blend of undulating assouf, 80s-indebted electronic drum pads and Auto-Tuned vocals. Primarily shared from listener to listener through bootleg mp3s on mobile phones, the tracks eventually caught the attention of Christopher Kirkley, an amateur American ethnomusicologist and founder of the Sahel Sounds label, who tracked down Souleymane and released his song Tahoultine on the 2011 compilation, Music from Saharan Cellphones. It was through these recordings that Coltun first heard Souleymane’s music, and he was taken by its ingenuity. Kirkley eventually brought Souleymane over to the U.S. to play some shows in 2017, which Coltun ended up tour managing.


“When Mdou arrived, I ended up driving him on some dates and once he found out I played bass, he said I had to play with them that night,” Coltun says with a laugh. “It went from that one night, to joining the rest of the tour, to then joining the group. It happened super fast.” Since then, Coltun has produced Souleymane’s first full band record, 2019’s Ilana: the Creator, as well as Afrique Victime and now Funeral for Justice. “It’s special being in this band. Mdou Moctar shows are all different, since we don’t ever talk about a set – it’s whatever we feel in that moment,” Coltun gleefully says. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

The group are currently preparing for their biggest show to date at Coachella, hoping to blast this unpredictable energy through the crowd of thousands. Yet, as they attract larger audiences, there is also increased risk for Souleymane in being so outspoken. “It’s not safe for me to play in some villages back home because a lot of people would come, and I’m scared that something might happen,” he says, visibly affected. “I just want to make people happy, so I have to do it in another way.” 



Always searching for new ways to spread joy to his community, Souleymane is increasingly searching for ways in which his music can bring material change to his compatriots. For each album released, he has a goal of building two wells for villages in Niger, while some proceeds from Afrique Victime have already gone towards a local orphanage. Whenever he returns home from touring, Souleymane spends his time travelling to local villages to find out how he can make a tangible difference, all while reconnecting with his family and sketching out new ideas for his musical projects. It’s this restlessness and empathy that fuels Souleymane’s vital, blistering odysseys about inequality and liberation; a driving, powerful self-expression that not only raises urgent awareness, but also presents solutions in precarity. The only certainty, however, is that Souleymane will always remain in motion, in his musical experimentation and advocacy, whatever direction he takes next. “For the rest of my life, I will be helping my people,” he says, smiling wide now. “Whatever way that means.” 

Funeral for Justice is out on 3 May via Matador