The Tuareg guitarist braves electric shocks, faulty gear, sandstorms, and bootleggers to make groove-propelled music that crosses cultural and international boundaries.
Niger, like many African nations, is defined by its colonial borders, which were imposed by France without much regard for the history of the region or the people already there. The country is a landlocked desert, aside from the Niger River, which flows through Niger’s western corner, and is desperately poor. It ranks 187 out of 188 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. It is home to at least eight distinct peoples including the Tuareg, Fulani, Hausa, Zarma, and Kanuri, and those peoples speak different languages, have different—although interwoven—histories, and play different types of music.
With that much cultural and ethnic diversity, it is no surprise that Tal National—a band whose music is an intentional composite of the region’s rich musical traditions—are Niger’s most popular artists. Their name, taken from the Désert du Tal, a desert in western Niger—includes the word “National” as a nod to their multicultural sound. As Hamadal Issoufou Moumine, better known as Almeida, who is Tal National’s guitarist and leader puts it, “Our music comes from many origins, so, for example, if the song is Fulani, I will try to [fuse together] a Tuareg riff and Fulani riff, which is very important.”
Almeida started playing the guitar when he was 30. He’s now 52. He’s also a judge—a position he still somehow manages to hold despite his band’s hectic schedule. Almeida put Tal National together in the early 2000s. According to their website, the band spent their first 10 years gigging around Niger. They played five-hour sets, seven days a week, and sold their CDs on street corners and roundabouts. That insane work ethic made them the biggest band in Niger, but it wasn’t until 2013, with the release of Kaani, that they began to garner international attention.
The road to Kaani started in 2008 when Jamie Carter, a Chicago-based producer and engineer, flew out to Niamey, Niger’s capital, with a suitcase full of gear to record Tal National at CFPM (Centre de Formation et de Promotion Musicales), the city’s musical hub and low-tech recording space. The band put out two albums in Niger before signing with U.K.-based FatCat Records and releasing Kaani.
Tal National’s most recent album, Tantabara, is their fifth project with Carter and third release on FatCat. It came out in February and it’s classic Tal National: a turbocharged synthesis of pan-African styles, contagious rhythms, and positive energy. As usual, Almeida creates a whirlwind of clean guitars—no effects and straight into the amp.
The new album also features a guest appearance by the Israeli-born/New York-based guitarist Yonatan Gat, formerly of Tel Aviv garage rockers Monotonix, on the track “Entente.” His scalding fuzz-tone solo is reminiscent of the psychedelic-tinged sounds that echoed prominently from nearby Nigeria in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when U.S. and British guitar rock became a major influence on regional bands like the Mebusas and the Founders 15. The two-CD collection The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria is West African music’s equivalent of the U.S. garage-rock collection Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968,as well as a historic foundation that supports Tal National’s self-proclaimed identity as a rock band.
“I think they are 100 percent right,” offers Gat, who befriended Tal National after catching one of their Big Apple shows and was invited to lay down some sonic spank on “Entente.” “The way the guitar governs everything in that music really reminds me of rock ’n’ roll. Think about [Tuareg songwriter] Mdou Moctar and guys like that. When I listen to those bands from Niger, I don’t hear African music, necessarily, even though the music is very African. What I hear is just the best rock ’n’ roll bands in the world. If people would just listen to those bands more they would realize that rock ’n’ roll is not that boring nowadays. It is happening in many, many places. It is no longer something exclusive to the U.S. and U.K.”
While Tal National was recently touring the United States, we spoke with Almeida and Carter about Tal National’s music and journey, the challenges of recording and acquiring gear in one of the world’s poorest nations, the unusual workarounds they use to navigate a faulty and sometimes dangerous electrical grid, and the art of managing a large creative ensemble.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Almeida: The first music I heard was when my mother went to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, she brought back the music of Sudan. Also, I have friends from southern Africa, like Congo and Cameroon, and that music interested me. In Niger, we have the influence of North African music and highlife from Ghana. So I’ve heard many musics.
What was on the radio?
Almeida: Traditional music. The biggest music is traditional.
Are guitars available in Niger? Where did you get your first instrument?
Almeida: It was a gift from a Japanese man named Kaz. He was volunteering in Niamey. I learned the guitar with him for two years. He brought it from Japan and he said that this guitar is for me. I was 30 years old and he showed me some jazz, like “Georgia on My Mind.” It took me three months to learn that song on the guitar. He also gave me a book of jazz songs. I learned to read music and I taught myself with that.
Was it acoustic or electric?
Almeida: Electric. Everybody in Niger knows about that guitar. It was very famous because it was a strange guitar. It looked like a kangaroo.
Did you have an amplifier, too?
Almeida: Yes. It was a small amplifier and the power was 110 volts. He also gave me a transformer for that amp.
When did you put the band together?
Almeida: When Kaz went back to Japan, I asked him how to build a band. He said, “When you build a band, make sure you choose good musicians and people with good character. If they have good character, it will be a good band.” That’s why I chose some friends. We just came to practice together—not like a band, but just like friends—and slowly it grew. One friend, Essa, who is still in the band, asked me, “Why don’t we work like a band?” I said, “We should, but I am not sure it will work too well because I am also a government worker.” He said, “We will try.” Slowly, slowly, we built a band and we called it Tal National. We just started in the club with only the original members, and slowly the club asked us to perform five days a week.
Tal National sometimes functions as a collective. In Niger, you will book two shows at the same time and have half the band play at one place and the other half play at a different place. Why is that?
Almeida: As Tal National grew, we became more famous and more people wanted to hear our music. We have three guitarists, three drummers, two bassists, and four singers. But that’s just for the business—the Tal National business.
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.
Like their music, the group’s members are also a fusion of their nation’s various ethnicities. According to Almeida, they are a multilingual, multicultural collective, but he plays the role of leader—ultimately ruling on the creative direction of each song. Photo by Jason Creps
Almeida: Because of the heat, sometimes you can’t get a great performance. You cannot tune the guitar very well. The intonation gets bad because of the heat.
How did you get guitar tones for the album?
Carter: In Niger, tube amps have a lifespan that is as long as their tubes, since there is nowhere to buy replacement tubes. We were lucky when recording Tantabara that there was a functioning AC30 rip-off at the studio. We used that for all the rhythmic guitar tracks, which are the tracks that are doubled and panned hard left and right. I also took a DI for the solo guitar—panned center—as well as the amp. All the overdriven guitar tones, like on “Belles Reines” and “Akokas,” are a mixture of the amp mic—the amp was a Peavey—and a Waves GTR amp plug-in.
Where do you record in Niger?
Carter: We always record at the same space. It’s a government center for music to encourage people to play music, to practice music, and to work on music. It’s called CFPM. [Editor’s note: That’s the Centre de Formation et Promotion Musicale. See a video about it here.] It’s a bit of a hub in Niamey for musicians. You can go there any day and find members from other bands hanging out or maybe practicing. It was built in 1987. It had a studio built as part of it, but it’s never received any more equipment since the beginning, so essentially it is just a studio space with very little equipment. When I started working with the band, I brought the equipment and we used the space. Now there is a little bit of equipment. Somebody has bought Pro Tools and a couple of microphones.
You just bring mics and a laptop?
Carter: I bring everything needed to make the record except for the microphone stands. That’s cables, mics, interface, laptop, headphones, and headphone amp.
Does every musician get headphones?
Carter: The singer and drummer wear headphones and then everybody else just listens in the room. We have two microphones on the singer: one that I am recording and the second going to the PA. All the musicians can hear the vocals in the room.
Have you thought about recording while on tour in the States?
Carter: It’s hard because they have so many singers and so many members. Each member and each singer has their own flavor and character. If we were to record in the States, we would only get a very small version of Tal National. That’s why I have to go there—because we need the full experience of Tal National, and it would be very close to impossible to do that outside of West Africa.
Is dust a problem too, from the desert?
Carter: You would not believe how great of a problem it is. I’ve been in the studio when a sand storm blew through and we couldn’t get the windows shut in time. I couldn’t believe the amount of dust that was coming in onto the equipment.
Do they have air conditioning or do the windows have to be open?
Carter: There is air conditioning at the studio, but just in one of the rooms. When we record, we have to have windows open and we have to try to have the ceiling fans going in between takes—because they do affect the sound if they are running during the recording.
Is the electricity a problem?
Carter: When they’re performing at venues that don’t have a good grounding in the power, one trick that they’ll do is take a speaker cord out of the extension speaker jack and then the other end of the cord will just be a bare wire and they will put that into something like a coffee can full of dirt. That will be a better ground for the guitar amp than the power they’re plugging into.
Do the musicians get shocked onstage?
Carter: I’ve been shocked pretty seriously just by recording there. Would you say getting the shocks from the strings is very common?
Almeida: Yes. Once a week.
Is that only in Niger or in the other countries in the region as well?
Almeida: Also Nigeria. One of the things they have at the music store in Nigeria is a generator for testing the equipment. They don’t use the regular power from the government. They have a generator for trying the equipment.
Carter: That’s so that they can show in an ideal situation that the equipment is working.
How does the band sell its music in Niger?
Carter: The band has a very, very small window to sell their music. How long do you have to sell your music before it gets counterfeited?
Almeida: Two days.
Carter: They’ve got two days to sell their new album before people start counterfeiting it and selling it for cheaper. In that two-day window, the band members basically canvass the city and sell their CDs on street corners and roundabouts. The band members get assigned parts of the city and that will be their job for two days—sell the CD.
Then it’s counterfeited and there’s nothing you can do?
Carter: From there, people start selling it on memory cards and burnt CDs. Then you’re competing with everybody else who can manufacture it cheaper and already has that market.
But you also own a nightclub in Niamey.
Almeida: We have a nightclub and we perform there. We call it Tafadek, which means “oasis.” Water is very rare in the land of Niger.
The buoyant collective spirit of Tal National—as well as leader Almeida’s dexterous licks on the Fender Telecaster he plays on tour and used to cut the group’s new album, Tantabara—shines through this 2015 performance of “Zoy Zoy,” the title track from the album the band released that year.