Say what you will about how the Internet makes people insulate themselves in their own preferences. That's only half the story. The other half of the story is about how easily the internet allows people to find things from all over the world. In recent years, there's been a wealth of music from Western Africa that has found its way on the international market, and I can't imagine that this would even be remotely possible if the internet (and other information/communication measures) weren't around. The music of The Very Best, Bombino, Jupiter & Okwess International, and Tamikrest are all finding homes on MP3 players across oceans. One of the more recent West African bands to hit the international scene is Tal National, a guitar-centric band from Niger. Tal National recorded their third album Kaani in two weeks in a dilapidated studio in Niamey, Niger. The album stayed within the domestic market until the band signed with FatCat Records in mid-2013, and now it's getting distributed internationally.
Tal National isn't as accessible to western listeners as some other recent African-based bands may be, like Bombino or The Very Best. Bombino's 2013 record, Nomad, feels surprisingly western with its production via The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, and The Very Best's European production makes the African themes more palatable to the western world. The band's music is both pristine and shambling, chaotic and clear. Most of the meter here is in 12/8, which yeah, is not very common in the western hemisphere save for a few clever math-rock bands. There's no distinct choruses to cling to, and they're replaced in favor of more motif-driven songwriting. It all moves at a rapid clip, and it's exacerbated by the noodling, ever-shifting sounds of the desert guitar. The dueling guitars rush by with a never-ending parade of hammer-ons and pull-offs, and the bass guitar joins in on The best songs on Kaani are those that find the band going all out, stretching past the 7 minute mark ("Kaani", "Banganeseba").
Curiously, with Kaani being the band's first international release, it's decidedly regional. Tal National's previous album, A-Na Waya seemed to pull from more westernized influences, like hip-hop, on songs like "La Limousine" or "Anawaya". These references have vanished almost completely from Kaani in favor of a more ethnic, cultural sound. It works well for the band though, and their music comes across as exotic and exciting. A rotating cast of vocalists and varying tones make the album propel forward without ever feeling redundant; one of the album's highlights is the bluesier "Nouvel". It's one of the best songs on the album because, even though it retains the same fast, slippery guitar and bass, it's able to create a more melancholy atmosphere with its parts. Tal National are known for their 5+ hour-long shows, so these guys are used to extended jams, and they don't shy away from it on Kaani.
The music of Tal National likely won't appeal to everyone, but it's a pretty great piece of world music that would have, in any past decade, become lost without making much of a splash states-side. Listeners that are looking for music off of the beaten path will find that Kaani makes for a pretty rewarding listen. For most western ears, there's not much familiar here and few reference points to hang with, but the music and instrumentation is so well-arranged that it's enjoyable nonetheless. This album begins with its most messy, cacophonous song (the title track), so beware - there's joy, liveliness, and energy around every corner, but not a lot of subtlety.
And one last thing: Hamadal Moumine, the leader of Tal National, is a municipal court judge and an orphan's charity organizer. Of course this has no bearing on Kaani, but it's pretty awesome anyhow. I can't wait to hear the new material from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's synthpop band.