Music

How Mdou Moctar’s music went viral via Bluetooth

How Mdou Moctar's music went viral via Bluetooth

According to where you are in the world, the afterlife of physical music is very different. In West Africa, the post-CD landscape was populated by market stalls selling SIM and micro-SD cards preloaded with tracks. Eventually the buddies started sharing songs directly via Bluetooth, phone to phone. After WhatsApp started spreading in the 2010s, you didn’t need to be in physical proximity to send firecrackers to your friends. They weren’t shared links, however, but highly compressed MP3s, which had a better chance of reaching their destination. To date, music sharing depends on what is realistic given the constraints of the region’s relatively weak internet.

These musical backchannels made Mdou Moctar famous. A shredder from Niger who plays assouf, or Tuareg guitar music, is what you might call a crossover star: His 2021 album Africa Victim was released on heavyweight indie-rock label Matador and brought it to an audience completely unaware of the history of its genre. In Niger, however, he is better known as a superstar in the Bluetooth scene.

Moctar remembers the first time he heard his own music playing on a cell phone. “I was in Agadez [in the center of Niger]and I wanted to go to Niamey [a thousand kilometers west] visit a friend,” says Moctar. “And then on the bus, I listen. Lots of people have phones and everyone listens to my music. And then the driver, he played my music too. It was the first time that I knew that my music was starting to be popular around me. It all happened without his involvement, out of his control. “I never do anything to encourage people to listen to my music like that,” he says, “because I don’t know anything about it. I’m not in company for the music.

Moctar’s bassist, Mikey Coltun, is the only non-Nigerian member of his band. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Coltun has been playing West African music since he was a teenager when his musician father started collaborating with Cheick Hamala Diabate, a griot from Mali and young Mikey joined the band. Coltun continued to perform throughout West Africa and familiarize himself with the local scenes in the region.

When Coltun first heard Mdou Moctar’s album in 2013, Afelan, he knew right away that he wanted to work with him. “A lot of the West African music I was playing, it’s very clean. Much of the older generation doesn’t really want to experiment. Compared to what had happened before, Mdou was punk rock. With Coltun working as a tour manager, driver, salesman, and bassist, Mdou Moctar began touring the United States. Coltun now also produces the band’s albums. Later, Moctar would tell an impressed Coltun stories from his early days, about hearing his music blast over cellphone speakers on buses. “He can’t really be like, ‘It’s me!'” Coltun says, “Nobody would believe him. Nobody knows what these [musicians] look like!”

On their first US tour together, Coltun and Moctar quickly realized they wanted to avoid the traditional “world music” approach. “Crowd seated. Very separated. Very white,” Coltun offers as a summary. “The money was good, but it was really bad.” The group headed to DIY shows, where stages were low or non-existent, and fans could swarm the group, “that’s what you do in the desert and at weddings.” [in Niger]. It was so much more natural. You could see the energy coming out,” adds Coltun. “I think it really freaked out [Moctar] outside, this seated environment, as opposed to people dancing up and going crazy.