The Hendrix of the Sahara

Written by David Kushner, Esquire

Monday December 23rd, 2019

The Tuareg rocker, Mdou Moctar, was never meant to play guitar. Despite the odds, he managed to make a name for himself, star in an homage to Prince's Purple Rain—and create one of the best rock albums of the year.

In the wee hours of morning one day in September 2013 in Agadez, Niger, an ancient market town in the middle of the Sahara, eight cops stormed a mud-brick home searching for a terrorist. There’d been reports of a white man with a bushy beard coming and going on a stolen motorcycle—an unusual sight made stranger by the color of his bike: purple.

“Get up! Get up!” the cops shouted as they rustled awake the several men sleeping on the floor. They found not one but two white men, whom they took away for questioning. At the police station, Christopher Kirkley, a pensive, close-cropped, thirty-­three-year-old from Portland, Oregon, explained that he and his bearded friend weren’t terrorists at all. “We’re making a movie!” he said in broken French. It was the first one ever shot not only in Agadez but in the language of the Tuareg, the seminomadic people who’d roamed the region for centuries. The star of the film was one of the men asleep in the mud-brick home: Mahamadou Souleymane, aka Mdou Moctar, a lanky, twenty-nine-year-old, explosively gifted left-handed Tuareg guitarist who shredded like a Saharan Hendrix. And the purple motorcycle wasn’t stolen. They had rented and painted it to be the main prop. The men were released after Kirkley explained what the film was about. “It’s an homage to Purple Rain,” he told the cops.

Moctar on tour in San Francisco.

Dustin Aksland

Mdou Moctar was never meant to play guitar. While he was growing up in Arlit, Niger, a uranium-­mining desert town, his strict Muslim parents, Souleymane and Fatima, considered guitars instruments of evil for booze, hash, and heresy. But like anyone who hears the clarion call of rock ’n’ roll, Moctar couldn’t resist. “It’s like drinking alcohol,” he remembers. “Everyone gonna say it’s bad for you. But when you drink it, you feel better and you love it. You do it for yourself.”

Moctar, whose father worked as a local merchant, spent his early years in a traditional dome tent with a palm-tree-leaf roof. He had no plumbing, electricity, Internet, or radio. The first time he ever heard guitar was one night at age twelve, when he stumbled upon a man, Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou, strumming and singing hypnotic, acoustic songs to an impromptu audience under the stars. “It was crazy for me,” he says. “Everybody happy. Everybody dancing. The crowd was awesome.” Tuareg rock—a fusion of African folk and American blues and rock, nicknamed desert blues—has been around since the 1970s. Tinariwen, a band from northern Mali, first brought Tuareg music to the world’s attention. They perform in flowing robes and indigo tagelmusts, headdresses that serve as both turbans and scarves—necessary protection from the blowing sand. Backed by repetitive, psychedelic riffs and the seductive beat of goatskin drums, desert blues is politically charged music. The lyrics are often about the struggles of the Tuareg people, who, despite numbering around two million, have been fighting for civil rights for decades. For young Moctar, seeing the Tuareg bluesman that night felt like destiny. “I just need to be like him,” he recalls thinking at the time. Unable to find, much less afford, a guitar of his own, he built one himself out of bicycle cables and sun-bleached wood. It was a crude instrument, with four strings instead of six, but when the left-handed boy plucked the sharp wires, he could bring them to life.

A bright student known for his majestic singing of the Koran, Moctar would hang out with older musicians after school, hoping to learn. But the surly men just treated the gawky boy with bemusement, taking his lunch money for lessons they’d never give and using him to fetch smokes. Moctar resorted to learning on his own. He discovered he had a natural flair, a relaxed feel for the string, and a poet’s passion for lyrics. When he outgrew his homemade guitar, Moctar, who has six siblings, stole one from an older brother, a taxi driver who’d been given a guitar by a passenger but never used it.

By his late teens, Moctar was writing songs and jamming with his friends—much to the disapproval of his mother, who was raising the family alone after divorcing her husband. “She told me, ‘You’re just going to sit around home and eat and drink,’ ” Moctar says with a sigh. “ ‘Now you have to go and be a man.’ ” In Arlit, that meant taking a brutal, eighteen-hundred-mile journey across the desert to find work in Libya, where Tuareg had been performing odd jobs, as well as fighting in the Libyan army, for years. Leaving his guitar at his grandmother’s house, he became a well digger in Tripoli. After two years away from his family, and his guitar, he came back eager to play again—only to find that his grandmother had kept it on her roof, where it had splintered into pieces.

Once he scraped together enough cash for a new guitar, Moctar felt the music pour out of him again. He resumed writing songs and began playing weddings, gaining a following for his fluid picking, honey-sweet vocals, and heartfelt lyrics. Moctar speaks passionately about the Tuareg’s matriarchal culture and high respect for women, which he weaves into his lyrics. “Creator, creator / You must come to the rescue / To all the women / Who are suffering in the desert,” he sings in Tamashek, his native tongue, in his song “Ilana.” “My music make the lady cry,” he tells me. “I talk about love a lot, and you just going to think it’s about your story.”

Moctar’s touring band, clockwise from top to bottom: Moctar (guitar, vocals), Michael Coltun (bass guitar), Ahmoudou Madassane (guitar, vocals), and Souleymane Ibrahim (drums).

Dustin Aksland

In 2008, he recorded several infectious and innovative songs—blending his bluesy roots with auto-tuned vocals. With no Internet or sophisticated audio equipment, locals would just record songs on their phones and swap them with one another using Bluetooth. Moctar’s songs spread across the desert, phone to phone. But he didn’t dare dream of anything more. “I never think am I going to get money in my music,” he says. “Never.”

By the mid 2000s , Christopher Kirkley was just another hipster living the Pacific Northwest dream—in theory, at least. He’d gotten a good degree (bioengineering) and an upwardly mobile job (biotech), and he was decorating his apartment on a leafy street in Seattle. And yet, as he was on the phone with Ikea one day discussing toothbrush holders, he felt miserable. “I saw, like, this path,” says Kirkley, the son of a pharmacist and a schoolteacher. “I could make more money. And then buy a boat. And buy a nice house. And pay my bills.” But for what? “I wanted something bigger,” he says. “I wanted to see the world.”

After quitting his job and selling everything but the clothes in his backpack, he hitchhiked across the U. S., combed the beaches of Brazil, trekked through the Amazon rain forest. An itinerant musician, he did some subway busking but wanted to immerse himself in the sort of Sahel music from Mali and Niger that populated his playlists. His inspiration was Alan Lomax, the legendary ethnomusicologist known for his international field recordings. Kirkley’s ear eventually led him to West Africa, where he hit the road with an audio recorder and, later, a cheap motorcycle. He had no plan or purpose other than to learn, live, and discover music. He’d spend his days crisscrossing the desert on his bike, drinking tea with the locals, playing guitar, and listening to artists. He became fascinated by the area’s grassroots music-distribution system over cell phones and Bluetooth. “It was this network of material that wasn’t online,” he says. “It didn’t exist anywhere else.”

There was one mysterious song he kept hearing over and over again. It was unlike anything else he’d come across—African-­roots rock with auto-tuned vocals and a driving drum machine. “It sounded so wacky and bizarre and different from a lot of what was happening,” Kirkley says. But because many of the MP3 songs were transferred without identifying details, Kirkley had little to go on other than a single name on the file: Mdou. For weeks, he’d keep hearing the song playing from cell phones, but no one could tell him who was behind it. “It’s this Mdou again,” he sighed. “Who the fuck is this guy?”

By 2010, Kirkley had befriended and recorded dozens of African rockers, but at increasing risk. While in Kidal, Mali, a hotbed of terrorism in the eastern part of the country, he was urged by the U. S. embassy to leave. Rather than heed its warning, Kirkley went even deeper into danger, sneaking across the border with a gang of young musicians who taught him to fake some of the necessary papers for entry. On their advice, he traveled with a large knife on the back of his motorcycle. “I kind of went off the deep end,” he says.

Moctar performing in San Francisco.

Dustin Aksland

Missing his family and friends, Kirkley decided to return to the States. Back home in Portland, he worked on a blog he had started called Sahel Sounds, devoted to the music of the region. He made promo CDs of some songs he collected, including Mdou’s, calling it Music from Saharan Cellphones, and distributed them for free at record stores to spread the word. One fan was Karen Antunes, who worked at a local vinyl haven, Mississippi Records. “Most people were bringing their versions of Woody Guthrie covers, but this was just super different,” she recalls. “The next time Christopher came into the store, I was like, ‘Hey, you’re the guy who dropped off the CD!’ ” Sharing a passion for music, they fell in love just as Kirkley’s desert-­blues compilation spread wide after someone posted it online. “Listening to the mixtape is like sitting beside a desert radio controlled by a restless herdsman,” The Guardian wrote, and it gave an extra shout-out to the “unidentified Tuareg musician noodling on an 80s synth”—Moctar.

With this boost of interest, Kirkley told Antunes he wanted to put the songs out on vinyl so they could sell them at Mississippi Records and elsewhere. But he didn’t want to do this without the rights. He wanted to compensate the artists, including the mysterious Mdou, the centerpiece of the record. As Antunes slept, Kirkley spent nights scouring the Internet, trying to find Mdou to no avail. “He got a little obsessive,” says Antunes. “Having this mystery became kind of a delicious thing.” If he was going to succeed, Kirkley realized, he’d have to return to Africa and track him down himself. In 2011, two years after first hearing Mdou, Kirkley finally got some insight when he met a local who told him the accent of the singer seemed to be from the Tahoua region, a Tuareg area in Niger where Moctar’s family is from. “Okay,” Kirkley said, “that’s a fucking clue!”

Kirkley went on the Facebook page for Tahoua and posted a message in broken French. “I’m looking for this artist, Mdou,” he wrote. “Please write me back or call me.” He included a clip of the song. Soon after, he got a message from a Tuareg man in Niger with the phone number for Mdou Moctar.

“Je suis Christopher Kirkley. Je cherche votre musique depuis longtemps.”

Moctar couldn’t place the accent when Kirkley called in his halting French to say he’d spent two years looking for him. He had never heard an American speaking French and figured his cousin was playing a joke on him. Kirkley was skeptical, too, unsure of whether he had found the right Mdou. But when Moctar played a few bars of his familiar song, which was called “Tahoultine,” Kirkley practically leaped through the phone. “Let’s record a bunch of music,” he suggested. “And then we’ll see if we can have enough to make a record.” Twenty-seven hours of flights and a sixteen-­hour drive through the desert later, Kirkley pulled into Agadez. He made his way past the bustling market and silversmiths to find Moctar, who’d been living there and playing weddings to get by. Kirkley bore a gift: a jet-black Fender guitar, left-handed, of course. Moctar, who’d never seen, much less played, a left-handed guitar, couldn’t believe his eyes. “You have left-handed electric guitars in your country?!” he asked, beaming. Kirkley watched in awe as Moctar shredded.

The two couldn’t have come from more different worlds, but they connected like long-lost bros. They spent hot days and dusty nights drinking tea, playing music, and trading ideas. “It was just like hanging out,” Kirkley says. “If you feel inspired, play some music. If you don’t feel inspired, you don’t play music. If you feel like you want to talk, you talk.” Before long, Kirkley’s audio recorder was filled with new Moctar songs, which he released on his blog-turned-label, Sahel Sounds, splitting the profits fifty-­fifty. The album cover for Afelan showed Moctar in a tagelmust with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he jammed. But after it sold a modest five hundred copies, they needed some other way to break through the noise.

Kirkley had a crazy idea. Moctar’s life story had natural drama: the disapproving parents, the competitive music scene, and this prodigious ax master coming into his own. Kirkley told Moctar it reminded him of a famous American music film from 1984, Prince’s Purple Rain. They could film a tribute to the movie featuring Moctar and his music instead—all shot in Tamashek, no less. Kirkley said it’d be a novel way to set Moctar apart from his peers. Moctar had one question: “Who’s Prince?”

Later, Moctar and a couple dozen other curious locals crammed into his house as Kirkley showed them Purple Rain. Moctar marveled at Prince’s face-­melting guitar solos and laughed uproariously at the sexy-motherfuckery of his writhing shirtless onstage. When Apollonia jumped topless into a lake, Moctar turned to Kirkley and deadpanned, “We can’t do this scene.” Prince wasn’t his style, but he loved the idea of making a semiautobiographical film that could bring Tuareg music and culture to the world.

Moctar and Kirkley began collaborating on a script, in the hope of raising money on Kickstarter to finance the film. Riffing on Purple Rain, and a bit of the classic Jimmy Cliff film The Harder They Come, it told the story of a Tuareg musician, Moctar, who must overcome a difficult upbringing and a cutthroat music scene to make it as an artist. They culled stories from locals, like the Tuareg who told Kirkley of the time his grandmother burned his guitar because she thought it was evil, then made him dinner. They struggled with how to adapt iconic scenes in Purple Rain, such as the skinny-dipping, that were too risqué for Moctar’s Muslim community.

“Can we show kissing?” Kirkley asked. “No,” Moctar said.



In September 2013, Kirkley and Moctar shot the trailer for their Kickstarter campaign. Against the driving beat of Moctar’s guitar, it showed him, dressed in a purple robe and turban, riding his purple motorcycle around Agadez and performing for throngs of Tuareg in the desert. Though Kirkley had never directed and Moctar had never acted, the short trailer had an artfulness and infectious energy. There was just one problem: the title. They wanted to name the movie some variation of Purple Rain, but there is no word for purple in Tamashek. Instead, they called the film Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, or, in English, Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It.

On January 13, 2014, they launched their campaign, describing the project as “the universal story of a musician trying to make it ‘against all odds,’ set against the backdrop of the raucous subculture of Tuareg guitar.” Their goal was $12,000. A month later, they had almost $18,000.

Shooting the first all-Tuareg film wasn’t going to be easy. They posted a call for cast and crew on Facebook, but the locals feared this weird rock ’n’ roll film would be sacrilegious, if not pornographic. People would sign up for a role, then never show up for auditions. But, one by one, they got their cast onboard: a beautiful Agadez merchant, Rhaicha Ibrahim, to play the Apollonia role, Moctar’s love interest; Kader Tanoutanoute, a guitarist friend of Moctar’s, to play his Morris Day–style rival; and one of Moctar’s older brothers, Abdoulaye, to play his father.

Kirkley and Moctar on set.

Courtesy of Christopher Kirkley

The moment they started their ten-day shoot in February 2014, the trouble began. They fired up Moctar’s purple motorcycle only to have it break down in a thick cloud of black smoke and a sickly rumble. “It’s supposed to be this cool motorcycle, and it’s just like shit,” says Kirkley, who had to resort to overdubbing a more badass engine roar. Dust storms kept swirling out of nowhere, blanketing the sky and equipment with dirt. Electricity would go out for hours at a time. Cast and crew would show up late for scenes, if they showed up at all. Though Moctar relished the opportunity to act, shooting the same scene over and over again felt maddening. “I have to say everything ten times!” he recalls. “That makes me so tired.” By the last day of the shoot, Kirkley felt “on the verge of a breakdown” and appealed to Moctar for help. “Dude, listen,” he said. “Nobody’s taking this seriously. If you really want to make this movie, you need to do this stuff.” Moctar, who’d taken to calling him “little brother” as a sign of affection, told Kirkley not to worry. “I’m sorry, little brother,” he said, and he made sure they finished shooting the film on schedule. When they eventually screened the movie outdoors in Agadez, the audience applauded so loudly they could barely hear the words onscreen. The film never reached theaters, but it garnered praise at festivals around the world. The Village Voice called it “a striking, gentle bliss-out of a feature.”

It’s a clear, starry night in September at Industry City, an outdoor venue near the East River in Brooklyn, as Moctar and his band play onstage, with Kirkley watching proudly along with the crowd. Moctar’s wearing a silvery blue robe, a long white tagelmust, and a low-slung electric guitar as he shreds through a song from his new record, Ilana: The Creator, which has been earning fans and acclaim. Lisa Coleman, of Wendy and Lisa, the iconic duo from Prince’s band, the Revolution, who played on the original Purple Rain, says she’s not sure if Prince got to see or hear Moctar before he died, but she thinks he would have been a fan, too. “He would have been just as blown away as everyone by his playing,” she says.

In the years since Moctar and Kirkley’s film release, the desert-blues brothers have enjoyed their own version of a Hollywood ending. Kirkley’s label has released several records by Moctar, as well as by a host of others from the region, including Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou, the man Moctar saw playing guitar for the first time in the desert as a child. Though Moctar hasn’t broken through wide yet, he now tours around the world, meeting people and going to places he’d never imagined before. After growing up without any musical influences beyond the Sahara, he’s catching up on artists like Hendrix and his newly discovered favorite. “I love Eddie Van Halen!” he tells me after the show. “When I see him on YouTube, I never see anyone play like this!”

For Moctar and Kirkley, the joy of their success comes from the power of music to bring disparate people together. It’s one of the reasons Moctar wears his traditional garb onstage. “I do that because I’m Tuareg,” he says the next day as he, Kirkley, and I drive down to Philadelphia for his next gig, “and I need all the time to show what I am, what is my culture.”

As we’re bumping along the highway, Kirkley says, “I think it’s important to have more representations of Islam like this.” Moctar goes on, “You’re going to have very nice people in black people, and then you’ve got to have very nice people in white people. What do you get when you mix them together? It’s the beauty.”

Their collaboration continues to bear fruit. Kirkley, who’s now married to Antunes, with two young children, is still releasing records from Tuareg rockers, such as the riveting, female-led guitar band Les Filles de Illighadad. He’s also prepping another Tuareg film, this time cowritten by and starring one of Moctar’s bandmates, guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane. The conceit: a Tuareg homage to Titanic, in which Madassane and friends, driving across the Sahara, break down after hitting a boulder.

Moctar wants to do more acting, too, along with making music. When he’s not touring, he lives in Niger with his wife and two kids. Though his mother still hasn’t come around to his music, he’s proud to support her and the rest of his family. He’s also building a school for girls, in hopes that kids like his own will have more options for realizing their dreams than he did. At the end of the show in Brooklyn, he holds up his Stratocaster and smiles at the crowd. “My guitar!” he tells them, raising it above his head. “She says hi!”