Niger is home for singer-guitarist Mdou Moctar, but in recent days he settled temporarily into the D.C. area. He played a lunchtime gig at the Library of Congress, and another one outside at Episcopal High School in Alexandria. Wednesday night at the Black Cat, Moctar even made a cameo at his own headlining show. He chanted a gentle song with one of the opening acts, drone duo Zomes, before taking the stage with his own band for a vigorous set.
As a boy, Moctar learned to play on a acoustic guitar he made himself, and his latest album, “Sousoume Tamachek,” has a hushed Afro-folk sound. But his earliest recordings, some of which first circulated through North Africa via cellphones, feature such up-to-date electronic gimmicks as Auto-Tune. In 2015, the imposing musician played a Prince-ly guitar hero in a film modeled on “Purple Rain.” It’s a role he can perform extremely well, as he demonstrated at the Black Cat.
The show began in the midtempo, bluesy mode associated with Tinariwen, Bombino and other musicians who share Moctar’s Kel Tamasheq ethnicity. But the guitarist boosted the tempo with the second song, and barely eased up again during the 70-minute set. He was backed by a bassist, a second guitarist and drummer Aboubacar Mazawadje, whose accompaniment was always steady and often flamboyant. Several dancers also came and went during the performance. As is the custom among the Kel Tamasheq, the female dancer was bareheaded while the men wore turbans that partly covered their faces.
Moctar’s only English remarks were several “thank yous,” but then words weren’t the focus of this show, which jettisoned “Sousoume Tamachek’s” multipart vocals. While the musician sang the occasional chorus, the songs were mostly ecstatic vamps, punctuated by demonstrations of speed and virtuosity up and down the fretboard. Most of the stops, shifts and slowdowns turned out to be feints, and soon led to further gallops and flourishes in which Moctar’s riffs whirled atop Mazawadje’s rolls. There wasn’t space to dance in the packed room, but Moctar and his cohorts took the audience for a rollicking spin.
Zomes, a Baltimore/Stockholm twosome, layered looping keyboard riffs and sometimes vocals over stately synthbeats. The evening began with a short set by Insect Factory, the stage name for Jeff Barsky, who used one guitar and multiple effects to paint chiming soundscapes.