Almeida was 30 when a friend from Japan named Kaz gave him his first guitar and a book of jazz tunes. Kaz also showed Almeida how to play “Georgia on My Mind,” which took him three months to learn. Obviously, he’s come a long way on his own since then. Photo by William Ruben Helms
How do you write music for that type of ensemble?
Almeida: Most of the time, I write a song for the band. Sometimes, we just use traditional music—a traditional song—and slowly we practice on that song. Everyone in the band brings his own ideas about how he fits in the music, and as the artistic director, I approve or I disapprove. But everyone in the band can make a proposition about the song, about the feeling, and about the music he thinks should be in the song. That’s the main way we do our songs.
So the songs have a core and you can take it in different directions depending on different factors.
Almeida: Most of the time, when we perform live in Niger, it depends on the audience. If they’re dancing, we play that part for a long time. The audience shows us. When we record our songs, we first perform them in the club and see the feedback of the audience. We have a special consideration of the audience when they are listening to our music. When they are dancing, we can see if this song—or which part of the song, or which groove—is important for them or not.
When you record your songs, how does that process work?
Almeida: When we record the songs that we’ve played live, we must record it together with the singer. The singer is controlling the direction of the song, and we need the singer to tell us when to change parts. Sometimes the solo guitar can also control the direction, so there is a lot of improvisation in the recording process, depending on the musical conversation we are having.
Tell us about the different peoples in Niger and how their musics are manifest in yours.
Almeida: The band Tal National is like a small Niger, and we speak most of the languages they speak in Niger. When we are touring in Niger, everybody can see himself in our band. For example, I am Tuareg. When we play for Tuareg people, they see that and the Tuareg come to our performance. When I went to the Hausa people in the east, we have Hausa people in the band, and they see that—the Hausa women and Hausa children—they can see that when we perform for them. In Tal National, we perform every groove. Today in Niger, they just want to dance, and when we come to perform, they can dance happy.
What happens when you play in America?
Almeida: In America, they also dance. Before coming to America the first time, they told me that in America they don’t dance; they just sit down and listen to your music. I said, “We will see.” Most of the time, they’re dancing at our shows. The language of our music is for dance.
Can you explain the rhythm of the guitar and where your rhythmic ideas come from?
Almeida: It comes from many origins—my guitar can look like five different guitars. Most of the time, it’s Tuareg. Sometimes, if the song is Fulani, I try to combine both a Tuareg and Fulani riff, which is very important.
Meaning that you’re piecing together different regional rhythms.
Almeida: Yes, those are the specific rhythms in our music.
Carter: It’s also that there’s a conscious element, where in order to piece the puzzle together, if he can combine a Tuareg rhythm with a Fulani rhythm, that makes it something new. It is both of those rhythms, and that’s the Tal National sound—combining those rhythms.
And how does that work with the other musicians?
Carter: The main guitar, vocals, and snare drum make up the core rhythm of the song, and that rhythm is defined by where it comes from. Other elements are added around that to generate musical ambiance and create the band’s sound.
Almeida: Most of the time, you sing the rhythm of the song to the singer. In the past, when the singer finished singing, we had the guitar come in and sing again. It is the same with everyone. When the guitar is singing, it is going to groove—it is very grooving when the guitar is singing.
Although England’s FatCat label released the band’s new CD internationally, at home in Niger, Tal National has a mere two-day grace period after each new release before bootleggers start selling pirated copies.
What type of guitar do you use?
Almeida: In Niger? We have a lot of counterfeit Fender Stratocasters.
Carter: The guitars are branded as Fenders made in the U.S.A., but I’m not so sure.
When you come to America, do you bring your instruments or rent gear in the States?
Almeida: Jamie provides the backline for us. That black Telecaster you see in the videos, that is just for international performing.
Carter: There is no music store in Niger. When the band needs to get new amplifiers, new parts for the PA system, new drum parts, or a new drum kit, Almeida goes to Nigeria. He drives to Nigeria to buy the equipment there and then brings it back. But when he returns to Niger, he has to pay tariffs on it going through the border.
Are you allowed to bring your gear from the States when you go there to record?
Carter: When I go to record, they usually try to give me a hard time at the airport because they see my equipment and think I’m bringing it to leave with the people there. Almeida and I have to explain to them that I’m taking it back with me. For whatever reason, they are trying to keep it on lockdown, even though domestically they can’t supply the equipment themselves.
What kind of equipment is available in Nigeria?
Carter: The best brand over there is Peavey for guitar amps. Up until this last record, we used the instruments available in Niger. But for Tantabara, we had played the Roskilde Festival in July 2016, and since I was already going to meet them in Europe, we decided that I was going to come back from Denmark with them to Niger to record the new record. I had to bring that Telecaster and the Squier bass you see in the photos—the white one—with me to Roskilde because they charged us for the backline and it was really expensive. I ended up in Niamey with that Telecaster. That was nice, because it is quite a bit better than what was available. But even after two weeks of that Telecaster there, it was all out of whack. The heat and the conditions—it would have needed a pretty hefty setup to keep it in playable condition after two weeks.