Go global, stay local
Tal National celebrates the Nigerien sound
As Tal National’s profile and reputation expands around the globe, the rollicking West African rock band continues to keep its creative roots planted firmly in its hometown of Niamey, the capital city of Niger.
The group’s extensive community of musicians has released three critically acclaimed albums as Tal National, and has toured the world several times over. When it came time to record and produce the group’s latest album, 2018’s Tantabara, Tal National decided to forgo the amenities of a fancy studio, and instead chose to set up and record on a laptop in the sparse CFPM facility in Niamey using well-worn, even nearly worn-out instruments. It was a choice, the band’s guitarist and leader, who goes by the name Almeida, says was an effort to stay true to the sound of Tal National’s hometown.
“Recording outside of Niamey would only give you just a small glimpse of the Tal National sound; a sound of [a small] portion of the band that was [recording at the moment],” Almeida says. “In Niamey we have around 13 members at any given time, and they all take part in the recording process. By recording in Niamey,” he adds, “we can include the whole band and present the most accurate sound of the band.”
The songs heard throughout Tantabara are as complex as they are mesmerizing and exotic, evoking the busy guitar work of classic prog rock a la Yes and King Crimson, steeped entirely in African inflections.
Like Niger, Tal National is multiethnic and multicultural, with members who are Tuareg, Hausa, Fulani, and Songhai and are surrounded by the sounds of Afrobeat, highlife, desert blues, griot tradition, and Western rock ‘n’ roll. For the current tour the lineup features Almeida on guitar along with vocalist Souleymane, bass player Issa, guitarist Babaye, and drummer Abdoulaye.
Indeed, this musical melting pot is not just happenstance: Tal National’s goal is to represent all people of Niger, and to spread the country’s sound across the world.
The band accomplished the second half of that goal with its 2015 album Zoy Zoy, which showcased technical chops and artistic ambition. Tantabara, on the other hand, was made for the members of the band, with hopes the rest of the world would dig it as well.
“There are sounds on the album that we wouldn't have put on our records previously,” Almeida says. “There are sounds on there that aren't typically found in Nigerien music, but that is because we wanted to hear those sounds in our music, and we felt it was the right time to present ourselves as a contemporary band, regardless of where we are from.”
That effort culminates in the vibrant funk and the unexpected bridge of “Belles Reines,” the fuzzed-out electric guitar solo that roars out of “Entente,” the effervescent pop vibes of “Duniya,” and the frantic rhythms of the album’s title track.
Then there’s “Akokas,” a fiery cover of a droning desert-blues song by Tuareg musician Abdallah Oumbadougou. Because Tal National has Tuareg members (including Almeida), the band could’ve executed a faithful cover of the song quite easily. Instead, they “made sure to mix up some elements,” including vocalist Souleymane singing in the Songhay language of Zarma.
The results are imperfect but inclusive. Which is exactly the point. “Some of his words aren’t pronounced correctly, because he’s singing in a language he doesn’t know,” Almeida says. “However, the spirit of bringing cultures together is there, and that is the spirit of Tal National.”
Tal National plays Smith’s Olde Bar Sat., March 24. $15-$18. 8 p.m. 1578 Piedmont Ave. N.E. 404-875-1522. www.smithsoldebar.com.