Over the last decade Mali has emerged as the undoubted powerhouse of modern African music, producing a dazzling array of artists now widely recognised as some of the leading names in world music. Less is heard of its eastern neighbour Niger, but that may be about to change with the release of Kaani, the third album by Tal National.
It’s a brilliantly consistent and, at eight tracks, concise offering that perfectly captures their sound. The buoyancy and boundless energy is apparent from the start and, while we’ve been blessed with some great African guitar music over recent years, they manage to retain a distinctive edge throughout.
As with so many African bands, Tal National have a fascinating set of stories behind them. Back in their home country they specialise in epic five hour long live shows that, due to the sheer physical rigours, require an expanded pool of musicians; these often see two separate sub-groups split off and play simultaneously. Frontman Hamadal Issoufou Moumine meanwhile divides his time between leading the group, acting as a judge in a local court and managing a children’s charity; as if this didn’t involve enough variety, he also enjoyed success as a football player in his younger years.
The opening title track has a rolling, rhythmical quality to it but also possesses an unusual irregularity, as do most of the tracks, which help the album project a strong sense of identity. These small points of difference crop up repeatedly throughout; there’s a refreshing sharpness and deftness to the guitars of Zigda and a striking precision to the percussion on Wongharey. The two qualities seem to come together on Nouvelles, the mellifluence of the guitars being offset by the tight, pointed drumming. They certainly can’t be accused of underplaying their music or settling for the easy option. Indeed, in most cases they’d struggle to fit anything else in, such is the full-to-capacity feel that permeates the album.
The guitars on Tchana seem almost geometric in construction, all close control and well-defined angles, while the album reaches something of a frenzied peak on Banganésiba, which is delivered with a raw passion that ensures the listener exits the album feeling tangibly uplifted. It’s a remarkably rich and full sound considering the recording conditions – the album was recorded in a run-down, poorly equipped studio in their home town of Niamey back in 2011. Equally notable is the label it has been released on – to date FatCat have specialised in the worlds of alternative guitar, electronic and modern classical music, but here they branch out into relatively new territory.
2013 has already seen stand out albums from the likes of Bombino, Jupiter & Okwess International and Vieux Farka Touré and, with a new album also imminent from Tamikrest, the competition is certainly hot in the African guitar music stakes. But with Kaani, Tal National have proved they can comfortably hold their own with the best.