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Desert Tunes: Meet Niger's Tal National

Niger group Tal National. Source: (Photo by Jason Creps)

The band Tal National has been touring the deserts of Niger for the past 15 years and making a name for itself on the world stage. But the group aspires to more than just great music. It wants to bring Niger together amid unprecedented security threats. VOA caught up with the band in The Hague during its European tour.

Despite its size, Niger has not produced as many world class music acts as its neighbor, Mali. Yes, there is Bombino and then there is Mamar Kassey. But apart from those two, not a lot has been coming out of Niger.

But with Tal National, change is in the air. The band plays to sold-out stadiums from the capital, Niamey, to Agadez in the North and Zinder in the East.

Guided by one grand idea

For Tal National, founded in 2000, the beginnings were difficult. Musicians sometimes had to walk to shows and sell their own CDs on city streets. But they kept at it, says their leader, Hamadal Moumine Issoufou, because their existence was - and is - guided by one grand idea.

Moumine says that, unlike Mali or Guinea, his country did not have a national orchestra. By which he means: a band that plays music for all the peoples of Niger, be they Tuareg or Arab or Peul or Zarma.

Eight major groups populate Niger and Tal National has made it its mission to sing in most local languages and play as many rhythms as possible.

The result is a high-energy mix, driven by traditional percussion, a grooving bass guitar and a drummer who manufactures his own sticks. It’s a good thing, too, as he goes through about eight sets in one evening performance.

National unity is the main theme, says Moumine. A sound choice, given that Niger has been rocked by rebellions and is surrounded by terror threats in Mali, Nigeria and Libya. But there are other themes: peace, tolerance, love and the beauty of the women of Niger. Moumine says that the last one got the band into some trouble with religious leaders, who began to denounce the supposedly salacious lyrics of their songs.

But this did not stop their music from being played absolutely everywhere: in cars, taxis, markets, at home and on the numerous buses that crisscross Niger's vast land.

Niger group Tal National is seen performing, in an undated photo, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Source: Tal National Facebook page (Photo by Bill Farrington)
Niger group Tal National is seen performing, in an undated photo, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Source: Tal National Facebook page (Photo by Bill Farrington)

Working hard for success

Playing five-hour shows almost every night, sometimes even splitting in two to play separate gigs at the same time, Tal National has worked very hard for its success.

They have two international albums under their belt, recorded in Niamey by Chicago-based sound engineer Jamie Carter. They’ve toured the United States and Europe.

Meanwhile, band leader Moumine, whose stage name is Almeida, has been working to ensure that musicians can make a living from their art. Clearly, it helps that he is a well-known lawyer and a high-ranking judge in Niame.

In his multiple roles, he says he’s been taking on the pirates who illegally share music and pocket the profits. As he puts it, he’s ‘got them scared.’ That’s a start. We’re not making any money yet, he says, but we’re hoping that future generations will be able to reap the financial rewards from their work.

The orchestra is planning a third album and a new world tour.