Tal National is a multiethnic, multigenre dance band from Niamey, Niger, led by guitarist, composer and acting judge Hamadal Moumine Issoufou—a.k.a. Almeida. Over a decade into their successful career in Niger, Tal National began releasing albums internationally and touring outside of Africa. Afropop recently recorded the band live at Le Poisson Rouge in New York,. on their third U.S. tour promoting their new album, Zoy Zoy (Fatcat Records, 2015). Banning Eyre caught up with Almeida for a brief chat before they went on stage for a breathless, high-energy, 90-minute set—sampled on Afropop Worldwide’s “Afropop Live 2015” program. Here’s Banning’s conversation with Almeida.
Banning Eyre: Hello, Almeida. To start, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Almeida: My name is Hamadal Moumine Issoufou. I am the head of the group Tal National. I’m also the guitarist, and I also worked for a long time in the Justice Department, the High Court of Niamey.
It’s a unique history. In all my research and African music, this is the first time I found a judge who is also leading a band. How did that happen?
It’s a question of love between myself and music. I was already a functionary when I started to learn guitar. I was in the interior of the country, in the countryside. I was young. I picked up the guitar, and little by little, it got bigger. I started to play with some friends, and then I found that I had some talent, and I formed this group, Tal National.
Tal National. What does that mean?
Tal is a desert. It’s a desert in the east of Niger, a very beautiful desert. The sand is white. It’s not like the desert in Tenere where the sand is a little bit red. This is the white sand. White like paper. It’s not well known. So we decided to give our band this name, so that people would know there is a desert called Tal in Niger.
Did you grow up in this desert? Or in Niamey?
No. I grew up in Tawa. That’s 600 km from Niamey. That’s where my family is from, in the Sahara Desert. I grew up there with my family, and then I came south to work. That’s why I came to Niamey, and this is where I encountered music. I got to know musicians like Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure [guitarist, singer and co-founder of Mamar Kassey]. We worked together a little. And then a lot of musicians came to Niger from the outside. There was Ali Keita, a balafonist from Ivory Coast. I worked with him. I worked with some Japanese musicians. So little by little, I got better on guitar.
So we talked a little about your beginnings in music. But how did the career in the law come into this?
Well, I went to school in administration. I was in the judicial section. There was administration, accountability and justice. I went into justice and graduated. And afterwards I started to work in Niger. I also played football when I was young. But eventually music took the place of football. Because football, when you get older, it’s no longer possible. But music, you can play at any age.
So how do you make the balance between the life of being a musician and a judge?
It was difficult for me at certain moments. At first. people thought it was ridiculous to see a judge playing music. They said that music was for criminals. For lower-class people.
Do people still think this today?
Some. Even today. But I have demonstrated the opposite. I don’t play music to be a criminal. On the contrary, it’s a passion. And after a while, people developed a level of tolerance. By now, I have the respect of all my colleagues in Niger. I’ve become a kind of example. In Niger, music is not just for hoodlums. It’s to make art known. It is a choice. And we want to make the music and culture of Niger known in the world. People have understood this. And I personally now have respect in the Niger. I have the respect of the authorities. I don’t do any politics, but when I speak on radio or television, they pay attention. That’s it.
What year did the band start?
And were you already a judge?
I was only a functionary in justice.
So what sort of cases do you hear these days?
We have a lot of cases, often cases within families—marriages, divorces, inheritance, custody of children. These days we don’t have many criminal cases.
So what sort of problems do you encounter?
The problems of marriage. These days, there’s a lot of divorce in Niger. A lot of marriages. A lot of divorces. It’s a function of poverty.
This sounds like the sort of problems that musicians sing about. Do your cases, and your career, give you ideas for songs?
Yes. I sing about society. We aspire a lot to sing about fidelity, the union of couples. We sing about women and about loyalty to the family. This comes into a lot of the songs of Tal National. It has influenced my music. You’ll see that in all my songs, the woman comes back; she returns to the marriage. The song “Zoy Zoy” is about a woman who has left her family, but then she returns. So my work in justice has influenced my music a lot. Because these are the problems of society.
Zoy Zoy is the third record from Tal National. I think there was a first one that didn’t come out internationally. Then we have Kaami and Zoy Zoy. Tell me about some of the songs on Zoy Zoy.
Well, one is “Saraounia.” That is a Hausa spirit. This is trance music. In Niger today, this gets a lot of respect in traditional circles. Trance came before Islam, so there’s often a conflict between Islam and tradition. So “Saraounia” is a traditional song. It’s a song of trance in which we call a genie (djinn), and the genie enters into the man, or the dancer, to speak about the future. If this season of rain will be good, the genie will talk about rain. If there’s going to be famine, the genie will warn that famine is coming. But this sort of thing is not appreciated by Islam, so there’s a conflict between the two. But we are loyal to the tradition. We want to make this kind of trance music known. This is African culture. It is a part of the culture of other countries too, and it should be known. So that’s a trance song, “Saraounia.”
Then we have another song “Kodaje.” This is another Hausa genie. This genie enters into a man, or a dancer, to tell the public why someone is sick. This genie can tell what medicines will be needed to cure the person—what tree, what medicine—and then that medicine can be brought to cure the person. That’s also traditional, and once again, there’s this conflict between tradition and Islam. Up to today, this is a conflict. But we have come to some agreement. Islam has come to tolerate that our mission is to make our culture known.
So it’s possible to have some sort of reconciliation between the two?
Yes. Each has its place. Islam is a religion. African tradition is something else. It is apart. Muslim tradition, and our tradition—these two are apart. So each one has its place in the society. We take our medicines thanks to African tradition. And we have other medicines that come to us through Islamic tradition. And we have modern medicines. Each one has its place in the society, and each one deserves respect. Each must respect the other, and we sing about that.
Fascinating. You talked about Hausa genies. If I understand correctly, there a lot of ethnic groups represented in Tal National. Was that something that you aimed for from the start? To reinforce the idea of unity?
Tal National is a multiethnic group. It’s not a group of any one ethnic group. No, no, no. It’s not a group led a race, or about politics. No, no, no. We are made up of many ethnic groups. In Niger we have eight: the Hausa, Zerma, Tuareg, Fulani, Kanouri, Gourmantche, Arabs and toubabs (whites). Most of these ethnic groups are represented in our group, and we are all about emphasizing the links. We demonstrate that despite our differences as musicians, we can stay together. Look at our example of living together. We are different. I am a Tuareg, and I bring all the energy of my ethnic group to the music. When I play guitar, people will recognize that I have a Tuareg feeling in my guitar. It’s normal. And when the singer sings, you feel that his voice comes from the Zerma ethnic group. It has that Zerma timbre and Zerma melodies. And when the Peul accompanies, you feel this Peul rhythm.
So everyone brings his energy, and this makes one thing. That is Tal National, and everywhere we go in Niger today we are accepted. We can go play in Agadez for the Tuareg. The music is accepted. Everyone likes Tal National, because everyone finds themselves in our music, and thanks to our example, a lot of other groups are doing this, creating tolerance among themselves. Everyone wants to bring in a singer from another ethnic group. It is through tolerance that we can live together.
Nice. That’s very important. We spent some time in Mali, especially around Timbuctou after the peace of the mid-’90s came about. That was a great time for the Tuareg. Of course after 2012, things got a lot worse. So I wonder, what has been the effect of these events in Niger? Has there been an effect in Niger?
Yes. At this point, security, as in Mali, is more difficult. It has touched us. At a certain time, the people who live near Mali could no longer go there to play music. Because there was no security. They were problems. For along time there was a state of war and Mali. But that’s changing. Recently we played in Gao.
Yes. Tal National played in Gao. This is one of the rare groups that has been accepted to play in Gao. There was a question of security, but we took the risk. And we found that in Gao everyone liked us. The room was full. Everyone was there to see Tal National. No one wanted to spoil the event. No one wanted it to end. Security was there. People danced. People like the group. They applauded the group. So now musicians from Mali have started to come again. For a while, cultural life was in trouble in Mali and Niger. But now it’s okay.
Good. We’re hoping to go to Mali next year. To see how music is played a role in reconciliation. Music is one of the most powerful tools in these situations.
True. A lot of people have sung about peace and Mali. Even Tuareg groups have sung about it, and that was effective. People didn’t want war. Artists came together. In Niger also, people were singing about peace. They were singing about Boko Haram in Nigeria. People have sung songs to give courage to the soldiers fighting for security.
Have you sung about that?
Not on this album. But we are preparing a song for the next album on the subject of security. And also on our last album, there was a song encouraging the military to fight against terrorism around the world. Because if there is conflict, people will not play music in Niger. People don’t want to take the risk to go out and hear music. Artists are killed. This is what happens in war. So we sing for peace, so the people come together.
Let’s come back to music. You have a lot of composers in the group?
Tell me about your nickname, Almeida.
Well, since I have a long name, people had trouble pronouncing it all the time. So someone said, “I will just call you Almeida.” I said O.K. No problem. So it’s just that name. But I’m not Portuguese. But it’s easy to pronounce.
This is your third tour in the United States. What’s been your experience of playing this music for international audiences? You are singing for people who don’t know about these things.
Yes, playing for international audiences has given us a lot of experience. It’s helped us to become more professional. Before we left Niger, we weren’t like that. We didn’t have a determined program on stage. We weren’t always on time with our concerts. Things kind of fell apart at the end. But for international tours like we’ve done, we see that this is a profession. Music is a profession. You have to respect it. Everyone who works with me understands that we are trying to change the face of things. We have a place in society. This has given us an opportunity to advance. We’ve seen some groups that have just three people playing. For us, that is strange—just three people? But we see that it’s possible.
So you will be six people on stage tonight. But in Niger, how many?
Yes. Each gig has its lineup. This version is just six people. Airplane tickets are expensive. So we had to, six. But in Niger, we can be 14.
So when you play there, give us a sense of what the show is like. Is it in a theater? A bar?
We usually pay for five or six hours in Niger. Sometimes we want to break so that people can go to the toilet, eat. But then the music stops. The guitarist wants to go to the toilet? No. No. No. In Niger, they don’t accept that.
Five or six hours?
Yes. And we play five nights a week: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And on Saturday and Sunday, we might play four times. During the day and at night. Ceremonies. Marriages. Baptisms. Because if we play in nightclubs, families can’t come, so we have to play marriages so that everyone can see Tal National. Especially the children. Children sing the songs of Tal National.
Speaking of young people, African music is changing a lot these days. Youth music is very different than the music we grew up with. And of course you can’t stop these changes.
No. You can’t stop the changes.
But what do you think about the music young people are making? Do you have advice for young musicians? And do you have confidence that traditions will survive in the face of all these changes?
I think yes. Tradition will survive as long as there are people to transmit it. Despite the changes. It’s the form of transmission that changes. But there are always going to be people who will transmit the messages. It’s true with the developments of new rhythms and technology things are changing. But, for example, we in Tal National we reject playback. We never do playback.
But young people do it.
Yes, they do it. But we refuse it outright. And in fact there a lot of groups that refuse to do playback. Hearing our group makes people want to play live. Because when you play live, everyone can feel that energy. They can feel that this is really music. It’s a dialogue between the people who speak and the people who listen. In these days people still love what is natural, especially in places like Europe. They don’t want to hear Auto-Tune and technology. They have a tendency to like what is natural. So I think that the work of people has to stay natural.
Finally, among the young musicians, even the ones who are making music that’s very different from yours, are there some you admire especially?
Yeah. There is someone who makes music this that’s very different from ours. His name is Yac-B. It’s a husband and wife. They sing traditional music, but with playback. They can also play live with musicians, but he delivers a strong message about tradition. Very good. And he’s arrived at a way of loading tradition in his own way.
I’ll look for that on YouTube.
Look for Yac B and his wife, Nana Ayubagna.
I will do that. Thank you. And have a great show.