Mdou Moctar: Funeral for Justice Album Review

May 10, 2024 - Music

Uranium extraction is backbreaking work. Workers spend hours in the mines operating heavy machinery while risking exposure to radioactive chemicals. In Niger, uranium comprises almost its entire export product, but its government sees virtually none of the profit. Instead, France, its former colonial occupier, still controls most of the country’s supply, using the minerals to power a third of its domestic electricity while almost 90 percent of Nigerien citizens are left without access to power. And though France finally relinquished all military bases in Niger following a 2023 military coup, many of its mines remain active to this day, leaking radon into the water supply of surrounding towns.

On his new album Funeral for Justice, Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar addresses these abuses directly. “Why does your ear only heed France and America?/Occupiers are carving up your lands/Gallantly marching all over your resources,” he sings in his native Tamasheq on its title track. You might not pick up on all of the finer details from listening to the first song from Moctar’s monumental new album, but it’s hard to miss the sound of righteous fury in its opening guitar chords, which ricochet like the first shots in battle. When speaking to The New York Times, Moctar said he wanted to make his guitar sound like a person crying for help, or the piercing cry of an ambulance’s siren. In his most directly political album yet, Moctar lets his solos become the sound of his fury when his Tamasheq lyrics aren’t enough.

“I make music to make people smile,” Moctar recently told Crack Magazine, and so far, that music has garnered him plenty of success among Western audiences. Just a few weeks ago, Moctar and his exceptional live band—Souleymane Ibrahim on percussion, Ahmoudou Madassane on rhythm guitar, and Mikey Coltun on bass—took the stage at Coachella to bring their exhilarating live show to their biggest crowd yet. At that performance, Moctar himself couldn’t help but grin as he stepped away from the mic and began one of his now legendary solos, his fingers nimbly dancing across both the body and fretboard of his lefty guitar, stacking melodies atop each other until they seemed to take on a life of their own.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the lyrics scan as an immediate plea to the American audiences: “My people are crying while you laugh/All you do is watch.” And perhaps just to get his point across more fiercely, Mdou Moctar does not shy away from power chords or distortion, instead leaning into the anger and power of the D.C. punk scene that birthed bassist and producer Coltun on “Funeral for Justice.” “Sousoume Tamacheq” is a synthesis of these ideas, meshing a breakneck rhythm section with the sounds of traditional Tuareg instruments like the three-string fretless tehardent or the gourd-shaped calabash. The result is an exuberant and enraged call for Tamasheq unity that sounds just as urgent as it reads on the page.

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