REVIEW: Tal National at Cafe Oto

Tal National at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

Tal National
(Cafe Oto, 23rd July 2015; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Tal National, the sparkling six-piece from Niger's capital, Niamey, have a devastatingly percussive streak running through their music, and made a powerful impact at Cafe Oto on their British debut, before a WOMAD appearance the next day.

Tal National travel with six core members, but at home, where they have an immense reputation, they can expand to a dozen for legendary 5 hour shows. Their leader, guitarist, Almeida, was so impressed by New Zealand-born, Chicago-based producer and Steve Albini fan, Jamie Carter, with whom he recorded during a Chicago arts festival, that he recruited him to record the band back home, as it was cheaper than flying the band to use studios in neighbouring Ghana or Nigeria. Carter became a devotee and has since brought them to the US to tour and secured them a record deal with Brighton-based indie label, Fat Cat.

Almeida is anything but conventional - a judge by day, an ex-footballer and an accomplished guitarist, he formed the band in 2000, and is a passionate advocate for the treasures of his beloved, landlocked, West African homeland. A large presence onstage, he started off their show by interrogating the audience about its location, and then went on to describe its wildlife and attractions before introducing the band's range of Niger's ethnicities, including Fulani, Hausa, Songhai and his own-Tuareg roots. 'Tal', by the way, means 'desert', of which there are large swathes to the east of Niger.

With the audience on board, the music flowed. How to describe it - imagine a cross between Barrister's Fuji, or Sunny Adé's Ju Ju, and Cream! There's the circularity of continually reborn rhythms, driven by the unbelievable, crisp discipline of drummer, Omar and the talking drums of Kelegue, who doubles on vocals with the soulful voice of Souleymane; mix in the raw rock collisions of Clapton, Bruce and, particularly, Baker, something of griot guitar and the blues inflections of Ali Farka Toure and you get close.

Tal National at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015.All Rights Reserved

Omar's razor sharp attack was at the root of it, an entrancing and complex blend of rhythmic structures. The melodies and breaks flowed around it with increasing intensity, a mix of traditional and original material. Essa's pummelling bass, equally capable of melodic flight, meshed with gleefully extrovert guitar solos, and call-and-response vocal patterns - and it was loud! The five musicians knew all the cues, felt the tempo changes, and paved the way for spells of expressive, physical dance led by their female dancer, joined by kindred spirits in the packed house.

As Almeida was happy to pronounce several times: 'Very rock and roll'. It certainly was - in some ways - but at the edge of a precipice with 360 degree vision!

Tal National:

Almeida – guitar
Souleymane – vocals
Essa – bass
Omar – drums
Kelegue – talking drums and vocals
Dancer - uncredited (??)

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