Live Music Review/Tal National, May 6 @Leo’s Music Club
I have a new favorite African band. It’s Tal National, a group from the Sahara lands of Niger, a country which has been severely underrepresented in terms of Western musical exports. The relative obscurity of their homeland makes Tal National’s sound, which incorporates influences from the various tribal ethnicities of its members, a bit of a revelation: it contains elements of Tuareg trance-rock and Malian desert blues, along with the nimble fretwork and uptempo melodies commonly associated with West African highlife. Indeed, highlife’s blisteringly intricate guitar patterns can sometimes be overshadowed by the emphasis on ensemble-driven arrangements. But Tal National’s focus on the interplay between guitar and drums results in a more stripped-down sound which concentrates on the music’s essential core, while appealing to indie rock audiences as well as world music aficionados.
Tal National’s recent Oakland debut at Leo’s was a case in point. Their live set-up consisted of one guitarist, a bassist, a kit drummer, a talking drummer, two vocalists, and a dancer – a much more minimal crew than the Afrobeat orchestras of neighboring Nigeria, which can have as many as 20-25 musicians. The musical communication was immediate and upfront, the movement-enhancing quality of the rhythms impossible to ignore; If you weren’t dancing by the midpoint of the show, you were likely dead or paralyzed.
The band’s experience—one of Niger’s most popular acts, they’ve been around for a decade and have been known to play five-hour sets—showed in their relentless intensity. Every time it appeared they had reached a plateau, they upped the ante and shifted into an even more-inspired gear. Bandleader/guitarist Almeida not only handled his instrument with virtuoso-like prowess, effortlessly shifting between supplying jangly rhythmic backgrounds and jaw-dropping lead runs, but also proved an effective conductor and narrator for Tal National’s musical journey. At one point, he informed the audience it was time for a trance interlude, during which the (female) dancer took a solo turn as the band veered into a long instrumental–and likely highly-improvisational–section.
Tal National are only on their second US tour (in support of their most recent album Zoy Zoy), and are still building up an international fan base. But while they may be playing small halls like Leo’s this tour, their stage show is impressive enough to handle much bigger venues. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them play Coachella or Outside Lands in years to come, and I fully expect that to happen, since word of mouth on this band is going to be amazing.
While many African bands face an uphill battle in terms of being accessible to Western audiences, Tal National have a distinct advantage in that department. Though they don’t compromise on the traditional aspects of their music—many of which have their origins in folk songs dating back hundreds or even thousands of years—their minimalist approach should win them over converts a bit easier. Just a taste of talking drums goes a long way, especially when it’s wrapped around infectious guitar-and-drum-centered songs and expressive vocal harmonies. This is a band which must be experienced live to be believed, and it’s likely that everyone inside Leo’s that night felt lucky to have caught such an inspired performance.