Mdou Moctar Credit: Nikki Celis

The story of Mdou Moctar’s early years reads like show-business boilerplate. Growing up in a conservative rural town in central Niger, he had neither money nor parental permission to buy a guitar, so he scavenged items such as bits of wood and bicycle brake cables until he had enough parts to build his own. Moctar had to leave town to make his debut recording, and though it didn’t even get a proper release, the Auto-tune-soaked song “Tahoultine” became a regional hit as people across the Sahel swapped it from cell phone to cell phone. That’s how Christopher Kirkley, the American proprietor of the U.S.-based Sahel Sounds label, first heard his music. Nowadays Moctar tours the world and has several albums under his belt—five of them on Sahel Sounds—and he isn’t playing brake cables or computerized effects anymore. Every one of his records is different from the last, and the newest, Ilana: The Creator, elaborates upon the incendiary live sound that Moctar has brought to international stages over the past couple years. It was recorded in Detroit last year with Moctar’s touring band, which includes drummer Souleymane Ibrahim, bassist Mikey Coltun, and rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane (a recording artist in his own right, whose soundtrack for the movie Zerzura sounds like a Tuareg riposte to Neil Young’s work on Dead Man). Their grooves drive Moctar’s dry, earnest singing at a clip that leaves the earlier generation of African desert guitarists, such as Ali Farka Touré and the members of Tinariwen, in the dust—and Moctar himself has turned into an unabashed shredder of a lead guitarist.   v