To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Maryama Dahir shares her perspective on Mdou Moctar’s performance and screening at The Cedar on September 23, 2017. The event was copresented by the Walker Art Center and The Cedar.
It’s a Saturday evening, and in a large dark room the only light present streams through a screen, showing a film in a language largely not understood by the crowd. Yet they laugh when laughter is needed, feel empathy when required, and are brought to happy tears by the ending… or at least, I was. Following the film is an electric performance that captures the attention of all. When the thobe- and turban-clad men leave the stage, the audience bids them back with loud cheering and clapping.
Mdou Moctar (lead guitar and vocals) and his fellow bandmates, Ahmoudou Madassane (rhythm guitar) and Mahmoud Ahmed Jabre (drums), traveled all the way from Abalak, a desert city in Niger. In Tamajeq, a language of the Tuareg people, there is no word for the color purple, yet that color remains a definitive theme in Mdou’s film. The title, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, translates to “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It.” When translating from one language to another, each belonging to a separate linguistic family, things often get lost in translation—but not with this. The screened film and performance draws its inspiration from North Minneapolis native Prince Rogers Nelson. Language wasn’t a barrier between Mdou and Prince; music is a universal language that spans across culture, creating connections along the way.
“The Saharan Purple Rain,” as the film has been called, premiered in 2015 and tells the story of one man’s journey to make it against the odds. Like Prince’s 1984 film, there’s an evil guy, a girl, and several obstacles set in place that points to the hero’s growth from beginning to end. Both films are semi-autobiographical. There are many differences between Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai and Purple Rain, but the important things still remain: the music and the purple motorcycle.
By the end of Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai—a fictional film that stars Mdou Moctar as himself—Mdou wins a performance competition, beating his jealous nemesis who also attempted to steal Mdou’s music. He also overcomes his strained relationship with his father and gets back the girl he lost along the way.
In the movie, Mdou’s father was a songwriter in his younger days but through a horrible turn of events ends up banning it in his household. When his father finds out he’s has been making music, Mdou soon finds his father sitting outside as something is burning: his beloved guitar. At the climax of the film, Mdou is onstage being cheered on by the crowd. His father, unbeknownst to him, is in the audience, and when the guy standing next to his father commends Mdou’s talent, Mdou’s father proudly tells all those around him, “That’s my son.” Mdou’s winning performance is the song “Adounia,” which he finds in one of his father’s old song writing notebooks.
Mdou’s presence in Minneapolis is significant. Although, like Prince, Mdou didn’t share much of his personal life beyond music that night, his love for Prince is evident in his art. In the film, in the music, and in the clothes he wore (all purple!), Prince was there. But there’s also a historical significance to Mdou’s presence beyond just music. Prince as a Black man belonged to the broader African diaspora. The fact that a Black African man was influenced by Prince, a Black American, creates an unspoken dialectical diasporic connection across the Atlantic. Think: Pan-Africanism!
Throughout the performance, I’m reminded of the ways culture is sometimes seen as the most prized commodity transported by the United States to other parts of the world. And through the traveling I’ve done, the blend of American and Other is always odd—but not a bad odd at all. It can be a good odd; creative and pleasing, which is what artistic creativity demands. I’m reminded of the history of the guitar that Mdou strums. Brought to Europe by the Moors of Africa (possibly an ancestor of Mdou?) then reinvented as the electric guitar in the 1930s by Americans.
Mdou and his band, standing on stage in their traditional Tuareg clothing, play electric guitars and drums the way rock bands do, except not quite like them either. Mdou dances in the fashion of Tuareg men, enjoying himself as much as the audience enjoys his music. I think of how all these things come together in unexpected ways to create a surreal moment.