Blog October 24, 2013
Tal National: Niger's Guitar Royalty
Tal National are a band- in fact, one of the most popular bands- from the west african nation of Niger. After signing to the UK based Fat Cat records, they've released their second album, Kaani, to widespread western acclaim. Minna Zhou was lucky enough to catch up with them on their recent US tour, which was the group's first. Minna Zhou: We are here today with the founder of an energetic Nigerien group, whose concert we are awaiting with great impatience. His name is Almeida. So, Almeida, for those who are new to your music-- you are very very well established and known in Niger-- but here for us who are novices, could you describe your music? The musicians, the instruments that you use, all of that? Almeida: Tal National is an orchestra, 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 activity. We are very much based on activity. We create atmosphere; at marriages and at parties in Africa. Today even small children in Niger sing our songs. In all the households in Niger you can find the music of Tal National, and even in West Africa in many of the households of Nigeriens who are abroad. Tal National is well known in our region, but if we are in search of popularity it is so that people can profit from our music.

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MZ: Just for us to begin to understand the sound- what type of instruments does the group use?   A: We have modern instruments-- the guitar and a modern drum set. On the traditional side, we have first of all the voice, which is traditional. The traditional songs that we return to. Plus, the instrument, the talking drum.  MZ: The tama.  A: The tama, as you call it over there [in Senegal], which is also traditional for us. So you see it’s essentially two traditional instruments, and the rest is modern, voilà. MZ: With all of these instruments, you have how many musicians with you?  A: We have about ten musicians who are professionals, who are completely in the group since...some since the beginning, some caught up with the train. MZ: That is to say that there is a rotation of musicians.  A: A rotation, voilà, that’s correct.

TalNatioal_10_20 126MZ: When you sing, it’s in Hausa and Zarma and in French?

 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 Songhai traditions that demand that you use a certain language? A: Why is the word “national” in Tal National? The group embodies the unity of the country of Niger. We have almost all the ethnicities of Niger in the group. So, we have many songs-- the most essential, the largest languages in Niger are Hausa and Zarma. We sing in these languages to create unity between people. In the group there are Fulanis, there are Gourmantches, there are Hausas, there are Zarmas, there are Kanuris, there are almost all of the languages of Niger in the group. It’s for this reason that we have named the group Tal National. There is not one language that we put 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, in the process of writing a song, how does that happen? With all of these different languages, who writes the song?  A: Most often, it’s the singer who writes the song. He chooses the languages-- it’s up to him to choose the language he prefers, even if it’s not his language-- you see-- even if it’s not his native language, but he can sing in another language, and we accompany him. So there is not a problem of language with us. We are all united. We are one. We speak with one voice. So, we arrange the text together, and the music as well. Each one adds his ideas. It’s not just an arranger who creates the text. It’s a preparation, a sauce where each one adds condiments.

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MZ: What really struck me when I heard your music is that there are different languages, but also many many different elements. When I hear the tama, I think automatically of the mbalax or in the guitar, I hear soukous in the music. A: Yes, a little bit of the Congolese, you’re right. Music has no frontiers today. So it’s the sensibility that we have reunited, and it’s what makes the voice of Tal National. MZ: We could even say that it is Tal International.  A: International, voilà! In Niger, it’s what we are saying now. We don’t say Tal National, we say Tal International. MZ: How did you find Jamie, your producer, who lives all the way on the other side of the world, in Chicago? How did that happen?  A: We cannot stay in our egg. We must leave our egg. We must meet the world. I, the leader of the group, left Niger to come to the United States to meet some very outstanding people, and so I met Jamie Carter 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 had been invited to play solo. I had my traditional gouroumi, which I played. 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, “Good. We’ll go to the studio. I have a friend named Jamie Carter who can record our songs that we had already composed.” That’s how I met Jamie Carter. When I met him, right away, he made 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 was courageous to come to Niger to record the album A Na Waya. It’s fantastic. It’s a bomb for Niger. Everyone loved the sound because we changed the new face of Nigerien music. We changed many things. A Na Waya really changed the face of Nigerien music.  MZ: And how is that?  A: By the sound. The quality of the sound that Jamie Carter gave to the album. So people now search for a new sound. To find a good sound is important when you want to sell your product. It’s important to pay attention to. So, now, people understand that you must invest a lot to gain a lot. And this also, it worked. We sold many many copies of A Na Waya. And we said that you don’t change a winning team! And so for the third album also, we told Jamie to come. MZ: That was for the most recent album? A: For the most recent, Kaani, he came to Niger again, and he recorded. Kaani was even better than A Na Waya. It propelled Tal National even more in the national circuit, and it gave Tal National a reputation. We are the leader in Niger since A Na Waya came out. So, you see, Jamie Carter played a very dynamic role in Tal National through his sound, through his work, through his courage. Today we continue thanks to him, thanks to others before who were in Niger, to come to see the rest of the world. It’s our first tour of the world. He organized this tour very well. We are happy, we are grateful for his consideration. We continue to work with him. MZ: So, on the album Kaani, what did you try to accomplish that is different from other albums that you have made?  A: It’s a little different. We greatly counted on dancing. It’s important when you make your music. It must be danceable. Today, the world is looking for joyfulness. People want to have a good time. They want to relax. So we must make something to make them move. Like with A Na Waya, we made something that will make them move even more. And so we made Kaani. Kaani was very well received, and people loved the album Kaani because of the different rhythms, the different languages that we used in the songs.  MZ: It’s difficult to say what the genre of this music is-- truly, it’s a mixture. Very cosmopolitan. From where do you take your inspiration to write an album like this, which has so much energy  and that takes influence from so many eras and so many styles? A: We work a lot with traditional songs. We travel a lot, we go to the villages in the country to attend religious ceremonies, and it’s through this that we find songs that give us inspiration that many people do not know. You must do research for inspiration. It’s through these voyages that we have toured the nation. In Niger, we go on tour, as we are doing now. MZ: From the south to the north, to the east-- A: Yes. So each stage,  we have this inspiration that we receive because we meet many different people. That is why each time we make things a little bit differently. It’s through these national tours, through these meetings with traditional artists that we gain our inspiration.  MZ: Who are the musicians who particularly influenced you?  A: African musicians above all have influenced us. We must mention the great Youssou N’dour. Youssou N’dour greatly influenced us. MZ: He was in Niger?  A: He was in Niger. Yes. He came to Niger many times. And he always advised us when we came to see him. He told us that as musicians we must work. We must depend on ourselves. We must keep working. MZ: You met him? A: We met him in Niger because he is an SOS Ambassador of Good Will. I am also an ambassador for Niger, an SOS Ambassador of Good Will for Niger. We are all working in the domain of SOS for abandoned children in Niger. He works for children in Senegal. I work for sick children in Niger. So we are all obliged to meet at reunions, at concerts that we organize. Youssou N’dour is an example of a successful African musician. He stayed in Senegal. He made the name of his country known through his music. That is the most important. And we are following his lead. Niger is not well known internationally. I think that in following the lead of Youssou N’dour, I could make the name of my country known as well some day. It’s certain that I will do that inshallah. MZ: Inshallah. And are there other musicians from other eras? Or is it mostly contemporary artists? A: Yes. Walahi, with the problem of the plane ticket, they could not move, and they are the other era. They are older musicians. They advise us. We are inspired by them, by their journey, so that we follow our route always together with them. And they have worked with us since the creation of Tal National, and we don’t regret it because-- it’s a mirror for us, these musicians from other eras. It’s through them-- MZ: From the 60s and 70s? A: Voila, from the 70s, musicians from the 70s who set fire to the era. MZ: Like Fela? A: Not necessarily the orchestra of Fela, but some well known Nigerien orchestras who made music in the 70s. MZ: Who are these artists who come from Niger during the 70s? A: El Hadj Taya. He is deceased. He is one of the first well known artists in Niger. There is also the military musician Maty, who made some songs that were instantly popular in Niger because he had an army orchestra. I believe that many people here in the United States or in the West, when they think of the music of Niger, think maybe of Tuareg music.  MZ: Bombino or Etran Finatawa. A: Etran Finatawa, yes. But that is a different genre. We meet with them, but we make music in different genres. You know, when you go to Senegal even, there are many musical genres.  MZ: Have you been to Senegal?  A: We’ve been to Senegal. We’ve seen many musical genres. So, a country, its richness is its diversity. In Niger there is a great diversity of culture.  MZ: I’ve seen your videos, and sometimes they are very funny.  A: They are funny, our videos. We make them so that the public can understand them, people who like our music. Women dance a lot, and many women like our music. We make videos first of all so that people can understand the images that we make. Now that we have entered the international world, we will push the videos so that they are much more competitive. MZ: But even so, there are many people I know who would like your videos already now, as they are a little bit in the old style. A: Old, voilà. And on YouTube even, we are popular on YouTube. When I saw the number of people who watched our videos, its-- we are very popular on YouTube! MZ: In these videos, for example, what are you singing, for those of us who don’t speak the language? A: We sing about love. We sing about the beauty of women. It’s a little bit taboo in certain places. MZ: It’s taboo? A: It’s taboo in some places when you sing about the beauty of a woman, the form of a woman, the virtue of a woman. We have gone beyond that barrier. We also sing about peace, we sing about tolerance. We sing about the unity of the people. Everyone can relate to the music. We concentrate on social subjects.  MZ: On your tour of the United States what do you hope that people can or will see in your music, or understand?  A: First, they must understand that we come from Niger! That’s the most important thing. That Niger is a country in West Africa, in the Sahel, that has a rich culture. That’s our first goal. And to make sure that there is no confusion between Niger and Nigeria. We are a separate country. Niger is a country. Nigeria is another country. MZ: They are completely different. A: That’s what we want to make people understand first of all, and since people don’t know about Niger’s culture, we invite people to come discover this culture. It is a very welcoming culture. We would like to bring people to Niger through the culture, voilà. (Photos by Banning Eyre)