Album of the Day: Mdou Moctar, “Ilana (The Creator)”

Tuareg nomads traversed the Saharan Desert and the greater Sahel region of North and West Africa for a full millennium—freely and without confrontation—before the postcolonial era caught up with them. When new borders formed in the early 1960s, the Tuareg people faced religious exile, as hundreds of thousands were violently driven out of the desert into the city. The soundtrack to this widespread urban immigration was desert blues: a genre that borrows from early Americana, the Southern Belt blues tradition, Woodstock-era rock, and age-old Tuareg folk. It’s music that echoes the droning stillness and overwhelming tranquility of the Sahel region’s unforgiving landscape.

Known for his thundering, rebellious songs, the Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar separates himself from the increasingly saturated desert blues scene with terrifically rowdy musicianship more closely aligned with late overseas icons like Prince, Hendrix, and Dick Dale. Consequently, Ilana (The Creator)—his first proper studio LP recorded with a live band—finds desert rock on a collision course with classic psychedelia and boogie rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the intensely satisfying loudness of heavy-shredding cuts like “Asshet Akal” and “Tarhatazed,” Ilana as a whole wrestles with themes of space, distance, and time in subtle, transcendent ways.

Captured in a few weeks’ time, during a brief hiatus on tour at Detroit’s High Bias Recordings, Ilana speaks to the movement of migration and a refusal to be contained by urban life. Although based on a wedding celebration song, the title track’s lyrics reveal a darker focus, the French exploitation of uranium mining in Niger cities like Arlit and Akokan: “Our benefits are only dust / And our heritage is taken by the people of France / Occupying the valley of our ancestors.”

That anger and frustration feeds right back into the dynamic energy present throughout the rest of Ilana, posing politically uncompromising ideas to the sound of a familiar guitar tune. Consider the album’s crown jewel “Tarhatazed,” a sprawling, seven-minute hard rock jam as earth-shattering as it funky. Unfortunate as these circumstances are, Moctar makes it his personal mission to convey the majestic beauty and confounding resilience of his people and culture on a global stage—to respond to the powers that be not with a whimper, but a bang.

-Angel E. Fraden

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