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Three songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

Mdou Moctar – Maheyega Assouf Igan (2013)

When the Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar visited Montreal last week he set aside a few hours to present a small screening of Akounak Teggdalit Taha Tazoughai, his recent film with American director/crate-digger/label boss Christopher Kirkley. Shot with local cast and crew in Agadez, Niger, the movie’s title is translated as Rain the Colour of Red with a Little Blue in It. In other words, it is the Sahara’s first feature-length homage to Prince’s Purple Rain.

Moctar, lanky and soft-spoken, discussed the film as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. His life as a travelling musician had resembled that of Purple Rain’s protagonist – why not reimagine that story as one of rival Berber bluesmen? The film is a unrestrained delight: amateur actors’ easy blushes, vivid landscapes and airy interiors, raucous music, Moctar’s motorcycle gliding through desert dust. It was such a delight that the small audience kept forgetting it was fiction.

“Did that girl really give you your guitar?” they asked during the Q&A. “Did you ever reconcile with the other band?”

Moctar shook his head, tried to explain to these unsophisticated Canadians how movies work. “Making a film, you have to pretend,” he said. “C’est comme ça.”

For years, Moctar has made his livelihood touring through Mali, Niger and Algeria, playing guitar at weddings – blistering electric solos, gorgeous acoustic ballads. It’s a music accompanied by tidy drums or steady handclaps, the same desert blues that begat Tinariwen. As shown in Akounak…, the region’s musicians’ reputations grow as their songs are passed from person to person, cellphone to cellphone, a network built on Bluetooth and memory cards instead of all-inclusive data plans. To earn a living, Moctar had to distinguish himself: with riveting playing as well as a distinctive style, autotuning his vocals into a cybernetic bleat.

Ironically, the effect that set him apart was one of the first things to go when Moctar began courting Western audiences. In the industrialized world, many listeners are still under the delusion that blues are more “authentic” when we pretend there are no machines involved.

Naytronix – Mister Divine (2015)

Tune-Yards compatriot Nate Brenner abandons the quirky funk of his 2012 debut in favour of sleepy, summery dream-pop. These four minutes unfurl with almost perfect ease: Gorgeous and lazy, oddly nostalgic, they evoke the Sea and Cake, the Zombies, Yo La Tengo at their most intimate. I keep imagining Mister Divine as the soundtrack to an imaginary Peanuts special, Charlie Brown on a melancholy pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago.

NEEDLES//PINS – Outta This Place (2013)

Give your life a haircut. This song’s like a buzzing razor, new smooth skin. It’s like wind in shorn hair, all the exhilaration of escaping a close shave. Vancouver punks playing selfless garage-pop, begging you to get off your duff and sing along, gloriously ba-ba-bada-ba.

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