West African rock band to play Winston-Salem
The energetic art-rock-leaning West African band Tal National started, like many bands do, as a group of friends getting together casually to work on music and improve their playing. But, unlike most bands, the main guitarist in what became Tal National was a federal judge. Also, generally not the case with many rock groups one reads about in the American press — the band took shape in the land-locked desert country of Niger. Guitarist and leader Hamadal Moumine Issoufou, known as Almeida, answered some questions with me via email recently, wrote that the band wasn’t even intended to be a performing group at first.
“The inspiration initially was just to learn how to play music, especially jazz guitar for me,” Almeida wrote.
Almeida and Tal National will play at Winston-Salem’s new club, the Ramkat, on March 22. This show is presented with Monstercade and will also include special guests Bolmongani feat. The Hard 8.
The band has just released Tantabara, its third full-length record on the American FatCat label. Since the group’s formation, Almeida has certainly mastered his guitar chops, shredding in electrifying blasts and pointillistic webs against the ecstatic and frenetic rhythms of his band.
There are plenty of traditional elements that filter into the music of Tal National, in part because the group strives to represent the vast cultural diversity and variety of ethnic groups in Niger. But their path to representing the traditions of Niger came through playing rock.
“Everybody in Niger has a background in traditional music because it is such a strong part of our culture. That is expressed mostly in singing,” Almeida wrote. “Nobody in the band started as a musician who played a traditional instrument then started playing a modern instrument. It happened in reverse. Through playing with Tal National certain members have decided to start to learn some of the instruments specific to Niger in order to broaden their personal musical education.”
But before one gets the idea that Tal National is a blandly edifying folkloric enterprise with electric instruments, I suggest a listen to “Entente,” the third track off their new album. It starts with an energetic vocal call-and-response, sort of barking the troops to attention, but from there the drums snap into a marching overdrive, smacking out a manic triplet sub-pulse over which lightning-fast guitar lines zip by in a dizzying tangle. Sure, you might draw a connection to African artists like Konono No. 1, Orchestra Baobab, Salif Keita and others. But one might just as reasonably compare the sound to the prog of King Crimson.
On Tantabara, long-time producer Jamie Carter, from Chicago, again came to the band’s hometown, Niamey, the capital of Niger. This time Carter worked some interesting production tricks to reveal some of the dense complexities and substructures of the music, letting a few songs start or end with individual musical elements left in isolation, like on “Pama,” which fades out with atmospherics, a mesh of guitars, and rhythmically inflected backing vocals. Or, like on the opening title track, which closes out with a lopsided, funky and percolating talking-drum pattern.
“[Carter] wanted to try to give more of a sense of the band members on the new record, and that’s why you hear certain elements begin or end a song,” wrote Almeida of the peak- behind-the-curtain production style. “Some of the ideas were strange to us, but I think it’s good to keep things different.”
While many guitar bands in Niger play street parties and weddings, when I asked Almeida about what a routine gig might be for the band in Niamey, he described what sounds like a full-time job, but one that also explains why the band sounds so unbelievably tight and well rehearsed.
“We sublease a nightclub in Niamey called Tafadek,” Almeida wrote. “We turn up around 6 p.m. and start to pull out the equipment and set up the stage (it is an open-air venue). We then might work on some new songs or just hang out. Around 8 p.m. people start to arrive, and then we play until around 1 or 2 a.m., without a break. We do this five times a week. Since the performance is so long, we have multiple members for each position in the band, and like a sports team, we make substitutions when members need to take a break, but the music does not stop!”
When Tal National play the Ramkat, it’s unlikely that the show would go to as late as 2 a.m., but we can expect some blazing music, with virtuoso guitar playing and drumming, along with body-moving 6/8 rhythms played at racing tempos.
It’s not easy for these artists to get visa clearance and logistical assistance for playing tours in the U.S., so consider it a rare opportunity to catch some of the finest music coming out of West Africa. Over the past 20 years, music from around Africa has become more widely known to American listeners, with excellent reissues and the greater availability of recordings of both traditional and popular music from around the continent.
Almeida wrote that he notices a growing awareness about African music among American audience. (He also sees an increase in the number of people in the U.S. who know that Niger and Nigeria are two different countries.)
“Although the process is hard, it is very rewarding when people come to the show and are so enthusiastic about our music,” Almeida wrote. “Our goal is to share our culture and have a global conversation, and we appreciate the opportunities when we get to do that.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.