These days, Mdou Moctar travels the world performing his fusion of psychedelic guitar and the music of West Africa. But the first guitar he ever played was made from pieces of wood and the brakes of a bicycle.
Growing up in the small village of Tchintabaradene, Niger, Moctar never heard Western music. His family and village were very religious and did not like music. Moctar first heard music from a Tuareg guitarist, Abdallah Oumbadougou. His playing inspired Moctar, who hoped to one day play like him. But because of the village's dislike of music, Moctar had no idea where to get a guitar to play like his idol. They sold no musical instruments in his village.
"So I had to build one myself," Moctar said. "It only had five strings!"
Practicing his strumming on the homemade guitar, Moctar honed his craft and shared some of his demos via cellphone-to-cellphone file sharing, which is an independent distribution model in sections of West Africa. The music spread and caught the ear of Christopher Kirkley, the American founder of the record label Sahel Sounds.
When Kirkley got Moctar on the phone, Moctar didn't believe he owned a record label.
"I thought it was one of my cousins playing a joke on me," Moctar said.
Kirkley was living in Kidal, some 300 miles away from Tchintabaradene, when he heard Moctar's music. His autotuned version of the song "Tahoultine" was a popular favorite among Kidal's locals.
"It seemed everyone had a copy on their cellphone, but no one knew who the artist was. His music became kind of an obsession for me," Kirkley said.
His intense search for Moctar lead him to sending out hundreds of Facebook messages around the Tahoua area, which includes the towns of Tchintabaradene and Abalak, where Moctar has lived. Kirkley messaged anyone in Tahoua with a guitar in their profile picture.
Kirkley finally found Moctar's phone number and called, eager to work with him. Moctar began recording his debut studio album in his hometown with Kirkley in 2012. That first album, Alfelan, was released in 2013. It is a fushion of modern psychedelic rock and traditional North African music, known as Tichumaren. Moctar's music is very heavily influenced by psychedelic tunes from the '60s and '70s. His guitar sounds are lively and upbeat, channeling Jimi Hendrix.
"I play Tuareg music. My music always has a message," Moctar said.
The Tuareg are an ethnic group who inhabit northern Africa, including parts of Niger, Mali, Libya and Algeria.
Moctar talks about politics, religion and survival in his songs—colonialism, the hardships of women, Islam.
"I want to show the world that being a Muslim has nothing to do with being a terrorist, that the religion we practice is a religion of peace," Moctar said. "I'm not a politician, but there are political things in my music."
Moctar likes to push his style and create "outside of the box," composing styles unlike his previous sounds. Not only does he play Tuareg ethnic/language rock music, he also pulls from artists who inspire him, such as Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.
Moctar is currently on a coast-to-coast U.S. tour for his newest album IIana (The Creator).
"[He is] representative of Niger, but also risk taking." Kirkley said. "He's also a real artist, outside of just music, and incorporates a creative vision into all that he does.