Depending on where you are in the world, life after the death of physical music looks very different. In West Africa, the post-CD landscape was populated by market stalls selling SIM and micro-SD cards preloaded with tracks. Eventually, pals started sharing songs directly by Bluetooth, phone to phone. After WhatsApp began to spread in the 2010s, you didn’t have to be in physical proximity to send your buddies the bangers. It wasn’t links being shared, though, but highly compressed MP3s, which stood a better chance of getting to their destination. To this day, music sharing is contingent on what is realistic within 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, he’s what you might call a crossover star: His 2021 album Afrique Victime was released on the indie-rock heavyweight label Matador and has brought him to audiences completely ignorant of the history of his genre. In Niger, though, he’s better known as a superstar of the Bluetooth scene.
Moctar remembers the first time he heard his own music being played on a cell phone. “I was in Agadez [in the center of Niger], and I wanted to go to Niamey [a thousand kilometers west] to visit a friend,” Moctar says. “And then on the bus, I’m listening. A lot of people have the phone and everyone is listening to my music. And then the driver, he played my music, too. That was the first time I knew my music was starting to be popular around me.” It all happened without his involvement, out of his control. “I never do nothing to encourage people to listen to my music like that,” he says, “because I don’t know anything about that. I’m not in some company for the music.”
Moctar’s bassist, Mikey Coltun, is the only member of his band not from Niger. 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 had young Mikey join the band. Coltun went on to gig throughout West Africa and to develop a familiarity with the region’s local scenes.
When Coltun first heard Mdou Moctar’s 2013 album, Afelan, he immediately knew he wanted to work with him. “A lot of the West African music I was playing, it’s very clean. A lot of the older generation doesn’t really want to experiment.” In comparison to what had come before, Mdou was punk rock. With Coltun working as a combination tour manager, driver, merch guy, and bassist, Mdou Moctar began touring the states. Coltun now produces the band’s albums as well. Later, Moctar would recount to an awed Coltun stories of his early days, about hearing his music blasted off cell phone speakers on buses. “He can’t really be like, ‘That’s me!’” Coltun says, “No one would believe him. Nobody knows what these [musicians] look like!”
When they first toured the US together, Coltun and Moctar quickly realized they wanted to avoid the traditional “world music” approach. “Seated crowd. Very separated. Very white,” Coltun offers as a summary. “The money was good, but it just felt really bad.” The band moved toward DIY shows, where the stages were low or nonexistent, and where fans could swarm the band, “which is what you do in the desert and at weddings [in Niger]. That was so much more natural. You could see the energy coming out,” Coltun adds. “I think it actually freaked [Moctar] out, this seated environment, as opposed to people getting up dancing and going crazy.”