Sahel Smiles: Tuareg Guitarist Mdou Moctar Sparks a Frenzy at Zebulon.

Mdou Moctar has a nice little smile. Mona Lisa without the suspicion, though with more guilleless sparkle in the eyes. It’s subtle. But when he flashed it Friday night on stage at the Zebulon Cafe, something like this happened:

And something like this happened in pretty much every song in the set. Guitarist Moctar and his band-mates, rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane and drummer Mahmoud Ahmed Jabre, would settle into a nice, trance-y west Saharan groove and then, after a steady verse or two, there would be that smile. And…. well, the word that kept coming to mind was frenzy. Everything revved up a gear. Or a dozen gears. Sometimes it would just be the flurry of his spider-leg fingers on his Fender Strat’s fretboard. Sometimes, as in that video, his whole body seemed swept up into making, and receiving, the sounds.

The audience, too, at this packed Frogtown club — mostly young, open to and hungry for a world of sounds — was swept up as well, whipped into the same frenzy, hanging on every note, every beat, every smile, stirred into a collective dancing froth. the word ecstasy might work for this too, but it’s been long-ruined by the rave scene and, well, Ecstasy, the drug. Trance too, for that matter, and bliss, ruined by a kind of new age patina lingering for a few generations. No one was zoning out. No one was transported to another place. This wasn’t about being elsewhere, in mind or body. It was about being right here, right now.

Moctar himself has swept into the position of the latest star to emerge from the culture and music of the Tuareg people, nomads and rebels of the desert region reaching into Niger (where he is from, born in Abalak in the Azawagh desert), Mali, Algeria, Lybia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Tuareg music, particularly the electrified brand he plays, remains one of the most prominent, enduring and unlikely phenomena of world music from the last couple of decades, having grown out of the displacement and oppression of these people by various governments, Tuaregs having taken guerrilla action amid great peril and suffering. Tinariwen, the first and still most famous group from the culture, emerged directly from the rebel warfare.

Moctar was already a star at home and well on his way to joining Tinariwen and powerful guitarist Bombino among the handful of Tuaregs with global renown. His new album, “Sousume Tamachek” (from the dedicated Portland-based Sahel Sounds label, which grew from a blog that is essential for all African music fans) captures the magic of his music. But he got an extra boost a few years ago when he starred in the movie “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,” basically a Tuareg homage to Prince’s “Purple Rain” with a bit of “The Harder They Come” and the first fictional feature to be made in the Tamashek language. (The title translates as “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it” — Tamashek, it turns out, has no word for purple.) The film, naturally, became something of a world-wide sensation on the culture-shock novelty at first, but ultimately on the heart and dedication that transcends that, not to mention the fantastic Moctar musical performances.

Such terms as Saharan blues and Sahel psychedelia, having been applied to Tuareg music for some time, also seemed ill-fitting beyond any surface application on Friday. The distinction of this music is in its depth. Moctar’s maybe doesn’t bear the explicit sorrows that mark much of Tinariwen’s music, but it’s there at the core, a driving force amid the celebration. This band, and it is really a band, showed remarkable precision and unity even at the most frantic musical moments. Check out this, from an encore instrumental, the three musicians suddenly putting on the brakes, all three at once, and hitting the gas again, with nary a nod. Take a moment to watch Jabre in particular, a drummer of great skill and artistry, seemingly as influenced by jazz as by rock, and driving the music much as Mitch Mitchell did with another lefty Strat player, one Jimi Hendrix, clearly a big influence on Moctar (as is, of course, Hendrix acolyte Prince).

At  the end of the first “frenzy” clip at the top of this piece, watch as Moctar makes a simple swipe of his hand across his sweaty forehead, turns to the band and is ready to start again. With a smile at the ready.

Harry Taussig and Max Ochs: Together Again, For the First Time



By Steve Hochman

In 1967, acoustic guitarists Max Ochs and Harry Taussig were each featured on “Contemporary Guitar,” an album sampler-of-sorts put out by John Fahey’s Takoma Records label to spotlight some of those in what was termed the “American primitive” form. Also featuring tracks from Robbie Basho, Mississippi blues veteran Bukka White and Fahey himself.

Last night, fifty years later, the two shared a stage for the first time for a concert at the fine new Zebulon club alongside the Los Angeles River in the area known as Frogtown. The occasion was the release of “The Music of Harry Taussig & Max Ochs” on devoted fan Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square label, featuring five new recordings by the former and three by the latter, commemorating that Takoma album — they being the only contributors to it still living.

For that matter, as improbable as it may seem, this evening was the first time the two had ever met. But the rapport was natural, and their respective approaches complementary. Taussig observed that in the decades since that original album, they’ve veered in somewhat differing directions, Ochs devoted to raga-type explorations and the foundational blues repertoire (he played some Blind Willie Johnson and Charley Patton this night), Taussig taking increasing inspiration from such realms as Gregorian chant (one piece was an interpretation of such) and 20th/21st century classical music.

But there was still much overlap in their approaches, both clearly still part of the greater Fahey galaxy in which blues, old-timey, ragas, classical and sonic experiments blended together in highly personal combinations. Taking turns through the show, they passed a six-string back and forth. Ochs sang some, Taussig did not. Ochs played a few songs on another axe, Hawaiian style, with a bottleneck slide, while Taussig did about half of his on a resonant, buzzing twelve-string — which Ochs late in the set asked to borrow, re-tuning it to a different open chord than Taussig had been employing. When he handed it back, Taussig took it as a challenge and played a piece in that tuning.  (See videos of each taking a turn below.)

Obscure in legend as these two are, they brought in a nice crowd, appreciative and enthusiastic, young and, uh, not young alike. There was a brisk business for the vinyl and CDs of albums from each artist that Rosenthal has released, both archival and new. The two were going on to do three more shows in the Bay Area. And then… well, who knows? They live on different coasts (Ochs east, Taussig west). Now, though, having seen them play together, but separately (save for a closing duo with crowd sing-along on Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train”), it’s tantalizing to think what they might do if they made music together together.

As for Zebulon, it’s a wonderful addition to the L.A. music circuit, the concert room in back well thought out (co-owner Mia Doi Todd, a treasured artist herself, having taken the lead in that) and the cafe/bar in front a great meet-and-eat locale with a multi-cultural menu from Fred 62’s Fred Eric, matching the eclectic roster of acts being booked.