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They Find Themselves in Us: An Interview with Tal National

Tal National, arguably Niger’s most popular band, just wrapped up their debut US tour in support of their widely acclaimed album, Kaani.  Released September 10, 2013 on the UK-based Fat Cat Records, the album is the group’s third release overall and their second with Chicago based producer Jamie Carter. They came to the States with less than half of their full ensemble—just five musicians and one dancer—but they played with an intensity that outstripped even twice that many. Tal National blends and bends guitar styles from psych rock to soukous music to Tuareg desert blues. Traditional Nigerien vocals, by turns plaintive and exhuberant, stretch out across dense instrumentation, which includes kalangu (Hausa talking drum) and relentless trap set and bass lines.

On October 6th, Tal National played the second show of their tour at The Belmore/New Skyway Lounge in Minneapolis. Backstage before the show, Minna Zhou caught up with the band’s founder and guitarist Hamadal Issoufou Moumine, also known as Almeida, for an interview. The interview took place in French.

 To stream Kaani in its entirety, visit Noisey. The album can be purchased at Insound Music. 

Minna Zhou: We are here today with Almeida, the founder of Tal National, a Nigerien group with lots of energy whose concert we await with great impatience. So Almeida, you are very well established and well known in Niger, but for those of us who are new to your music, could you describe it a bit for us? Tell us about the musicians, the instruments you use, all of that.

Almeida: Tal National is a band, a musical group, composed of about ten people who play essentially neo-traditional music, which is to say a mixture of traditional and modern music. We have very popular songs in Niger and to a certain extent throughout West Africa.

Tal National is all about animation. We are very much based on animating and exciting crowds. We create atmosphere—at marriages, for example, or at celebrations and parties around Africa. We occupy a place in Nigerien society today where even small children sing our songs. You can find the music of Tal National in all households across Niger and even in many of the households of Nigeriens who are abroad in other West African nations. So you see that Tal National is very well known in our region, but we are in search of a popularity that will allow people all around the world to benefit from our music and to know that we are here.

MZ: Just for us to begin to understand the group’s sound–what type of instruments do you use? 

A: We have modern instruments like the guitar and drum kit. On the traditional side, we have the vocals, as well as traditional songs that we’re bringing back in our own way. We also have the talking drum.

MZ: The tama.

A: The tama, as you call it over there [in Senegal], which is also traditional for us. So it’s essentially two traditional instruments, and all the rest is modern, voilà.

MZ: And you have how many musicians again playing all these instruments?

A: We have about ten professional musicians, some of whom have been with us since the beginning and some of whom joined later and help with musician changeovers during concerts.

MZ: That is to say that there is a rotation of musicians.

A: A rotation, voilà, that is correct.

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MZ: When you sing, it’s in Hausa and Zarma as well as in French, no?

 A: Yes. We speak in French as well.

 MZ: How do you choose which language–

 A: To sing in?

 MZ: To sing in, yes. Are there certain forms of music that come from the Hausa or Songhaï traditions for example that require that you use a certain language? How does that work for you?

A: Why the word “national” in “Tal National”? It embodies the unity of the country of Niger. We have almost all the ethnicities of Niger represented in the group. The most essential and widely spoken languages in Niger are Hausa and Zarma. We sing in these two languages to create unity between people and to create a sense of community. There are Fulanis in the group; there are Gourmantches; there are Hausas; there are Zarmas; there are Kanuris; there are almost all of the languages of Niger present in our group. It is for this reason that we have named the group Tal National. There is not one language that we place above another. We esteem all of the languages of Niger equally, and we sing in these languages to create national strength, because everyone can find themselves in us.

MZ: So, how does the song-writing process happen for the group, especially with all of these different languages? Who writes the songs?

 A: Most often, it is the singer who brings his song to the table. It’s up to him to choose the language he prefers, even if it’s not his mother tongue. You see, even if it’s not his native language, he can sing in it, and we accompany him. Those who do speak the language help go over his text and correct it, and all of a sudden, the music comes. So there’s no problem of language for us. We are all united. We are one. We speak with one voice, and the rest flows quickly. When you bring your language, we don’t ask you why you’ve chosen that language—no. We arrange the text together, and everyone brings his ideas to the music. It’s not just an arranger who creates the text. The music is a mix, a sauce to which each person brings his condiments.

MZ: And that’s just it: What struck me when I heard your music is that there are different languages but also many, many different musical elements. When I hear the tama, for example, I think automatically of mbalax, or in the way you play guitar, I can hear soukous.

A: Yes, a bit of the Congolese, you’re right. Music has no frontiers today. We can’t talk about borders when we talk about music. So it’s that sensibility that we bring to our music, and that’s what makes the voice of Tal National what it is.

MZ: One could even say that it is Tal International.

 A: International, voilà! In Niger, that’s what we’re saying now. We don’t say Tal National. We say Tal International.

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MZ: How did you find Jamie, your producer, who lives all the way on the other side of the world in Chicago? And how did it happen that you signed to Fat Cat Records?

 A: Well, we’d said to ourselves, “We can’t stay in our egg. We must leave our egg. We must go and meet the world.” So I, being the leader of the group, left Niger to come to the United States to meet some outstanding people, and that’s when I met Jamie Carter, there, out in the world.

MZ: That was in what year?

A: In 2008 I believe.

 MZ: How did that meeting take place?

A: We met through a festival in Chicago. I was invited to play solo. I had my traditional gouroumi, and I played with Jamie Topper, a woman who is also from Chicago. We played together as a duo, and I asked if we could record something as a souvenir. She told me, “Sure, we’ll go to the studio. I have a friend named Jamie Carter who can record the songs that we’ve already composed.” That’s how I met Jamie Carter. When I met him, right away, he engineered the sound, and right away I liked the sound of Jamie Carter. So I told him that he should come to Niger to record a Tal National album. He said, “I’m very excited!” And he came. He gathered his courage to come to Niger to record the album A Na Waya.

It was extraordinary. It was a bomb for Niger. Everyone loved the sound, because through it, we were able to transform the presentation of Nigerien music. We changed many things. A Na Waya really changed the face of Nigerien music.

 MZ: And in what way?

 A: By the sound–the quality of the sound that Jamie Carter gave to the album. So now people actively go and search for a new, better sound. Seeking out good sound is important when you want to sell your product. It’s important to pay attention to. Now, people understand that you must invest a lot to gain a lot. And this method worked for us; we sold thousands upon thousands of copies of A Na Waya. And as they say, “You don’t change the winning team!” So we asked Jamie to come for the third album as well.

MZ: That was for the most recent album?

A: Yes, for the most recent album, Kaani , he came again to Niger to record it. Kaani was again like A Na Waya, but even more so than A Na Waya. It propelled Tal National even further in the national circuit, and it gave Tal National an even greater reputation in music. We have been the leaders in Nigerien music since A Na Waya was released. So you see, Jamie Carter played a very dynamic role in Tal National’s development–through his sound, through his work, and through his courage. Today we are able to continue thanks to him and thanks to others before him who came to Niger to see more of the world.

Coming to the States and being able to manage our music on this level is very important. This is our first world tour, which Jamie organized. We are happy, and we are grateful for his consideration. We continue to work with him on this journey that we are on together.

MZ: So, on the album Kaani, what did you try to accomplish that is different from other albums that you have made?

A: It is a bit different. We invested a lot in dance. It’s important when you make your music. It must be danceable. Today, the world is looking for joy. People want to have a good time; they’re looking for a way to destress. So we must make something to make them move. We saw this with A Na Waya, which was something that made people move. We decided that for the next album, we would make something that would make them move even more. And so we made Kaani. Kaani was very well received and was an even cleaner recording than A Na Waya. People loved Kaani for all the different rhythms and different languages that we employed in the songs.

 MZ: One of the things I love about this music is that it’s difficult to categorize. It is truly a mélange.

A: Exactly. It’s a mélange.

MZ: And it’s very cosmopolitan. Where do you find your inspiration in writing an album like this, which has so much energy and which incorporates influences from so many musical eras and styles?

A: We work a lot with traditional musicians. We travel a lot. We go to rural villages to attend religious ceremonies, and it is through these experiences that we find the inspiration for songs that many people don’t even know about. It is necessary to go out and do research for inspiration. We tour all around Niger, like what we are doing here in the US, and inspiration follows us at each stage of our travels because of the many different peoples we meet. These people and experiences are also what inspire us to do things a little differently every time we perform. So it is through these national tours, through these meetings with traditional artists, that we are able to find inspiration.

 MZ: Who are some of the musicians who particularly influence you?

 A: African musicians above all have influenced us. We must talk about the great Youssou N’Dour. It’s been years since Youssou–

MZ: He was in Niger?

 A: He was in Niger, yes. He has come to Niger many times. And he’d always advise us when we’d go see him. He told us that as musicians, we must work. We must stay in our own home countries; we must keep working in our own countries.

MZ: You met him?

A: We met him in Niger, as he is the ambassador of SOS Children’s Villages International for Senegal, and I am the SOS ambassador for Niger. Youssou works for children in distress in Senegal, and I work to help at-risk and abandoned children in Niger. So we’re always required to meet up at meetings and at fundraising and awareness concerts that we organize for SOS.

Youssou N’Dour is an example of an African musician of great success. He has stayed in his own homecountry in Senegal. He has stayed. He has made known the name of his country through his music. That is the most important thing. And we are in his footsteps.

Niger is not well known internationally. I think that in following the lead of Youssou N’Dour, I too can make known the name of my country. It is certain that I will, inshallah.

MZ: Inshallah. And are there other musicians from other eras who have made an impact on Tal National? Or is it mostly contemporary artists?

A: Yes, there are musicians from our own era who are in the group. Walahi, with the problem of plane tickets, they were not able to make it over on this tour. They are from another era, and we play together, and they advise us. We are inspired by their journey, and we use what we learn from them to manage our own route, always together with them. They have worked with us since the inception of Tal National, and we don’t regret it. They are a mirror for us, these musicians from other eras.

MZ: So we’re talking from the 60s and 70s?

A: Voilà, from the 70s, musicians from the 70s who set fire to the era.

MZ: Like Fela?

A: Not necessarily the musicians who worked with Fela, but a few well-known Nigerien groups who made music in the 70s.

MZ: Who were some of these Nigerien artists of the 70s?

A: One of them who has since passed away is El Hadj Taya. He was one of the first artists to be known in Niger.

We also have Maty [Abdou Salissou], who was a member of the military who also came out with some songs that were instantly played around Niger. He emerged from the army orchestra. We play together with him [Maty plays drums], and every time we play, we follow his path, because he is an elder, a veritable dean.

MZ: You know, I feel like many people here in the United States or in the West, when they think of Nigerien music, they think of perhaps Tuareg music.

A: Tuareg music, exactly.

 MZ: Like Bombino or Etran Finatawa.

A: Etran Finatawa, yes. We work with them most often in concert settings, but we play different genres of music. For Tal National, it’s not only Tuareg music. It is true that Tuareg music has seen a huge surge in popularity, but there are also other musical genres in Niger that we want to reveal to the world. You know, when you go to Senegal too, you find many musical genres.

 MZ: Were you also in Senegal?

A: We’ve been to Senegal, and you see many musical genres there. A country’s riches lie in its diversity. In Niger, there is a cultural diversity that is so vast that we can only use something like 1% of it in our music. So we want to show people this diversity.

 MZ: What about your music videos? I’ve seen your videos, and sometimes they’re quite funny.

 A: They are funny, our videos. We make them in a way that the public can understand and take a liking to the music. You see, where dance is concerned, women dance a lot, and many women also like our music, because we make our music as a way to let go and enjoy life. In our videos, we don’t do anything too big; we make them first and foremost so that people can understand the images we’re sharing. However, now that we’ve entered the world on an international level, we’re going to push the videos to be much more competitive, because that’s the new level of competition.

Authors’s note [When the band played this live, they sped it up and left audience members awed and in the dust]. 

MZ: Even so, I believe many people would like your videos as they are now, especially since they are made in an older style, like videos from West Africa that we see from the 70s.

A: Yes, they’re made in the old style. On YouTube even, we’ve gotten lots of hits. When I saw the number of people who watched our videos, it’s—we are very popular on YouTube!

MZ: And in these videos, what are you singing about, for those of us who don’t speak the languages?

A: We sing about love. We sing about the beauty of women. It’s a bit of a taboo in some places. It’s taboo to sing about the beauty of a woman, the physical form of a woman, the virtue of a woman. But we have passed this barrier.

We also sing about peace, we sing about tolerance, we sing about the unity of a people. Everyone can find themselves and each other in our songs. We don’t talk about potentially polarizing topics; rather, we focus on social topics.

 MZ: On your tour this time in the United States, what do you hope people will take away from your music or understand in your music?

 A: First, they must understand that we come from Niger! That’s the most important thing; that they know that Niger is a country in West Africa, in the Sahel, and that we are a country rich in cultural heritage. That’s our first goal. We also want to make sure that there is no confusion between Niger and Nigeria. We are a separate country. Niger is one country; Nigeria is another. By sharing our culture, we hope to differentiate Niger from Nigeria. And since many people don’t know about our culture, we invite them to come to Niger and discover it! It is very rich and very welcoming. In short, we want to bring people to Niger through our music and culture, voilà.

MZ: Well, Almeida, thank you again. It was a real pleasure to get to sit down with you this evening.

A: Thank you, Minna. It is for me to thank you.

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