In the holy month of Ramadan, when entertainment gives way to reflection and charity, the members of Tal National — currently the most famous band in the West African republic of Niger — stop playing music and turn to good works.
They buy tons of rice and truckloads of sugar and cooking oil, and distribute the goods to the needy. Among the recipients are elder and traditional musicians who practice their craft the old way in one of the world’s poorest countries: as folk singers or wedding artists, subsisting on unreliable stipends and meager gifts.
“We seek out traditional musicians who have nothing, who get no royalties,” says Hamadal Issoufou Moumine, who goes by Almeida, and who founded Tal National in 2000 after starting several other fast-paced, rock-inspired bands in the capital, Niamey. “It’s a month when people are fasting and when they’re unemployed.”
Tal National, which plays Johnny D’s tonight behind the new album “Zoy Zoy,” its second international release, doesn’t have that problem. Even before the band achieved foreign acclaim, which came with “Kaani” in 2013, playing five nights a week at a nightclub in central Niamey, plus countless weddings and events, allowed Almeida to pay his musicians steady salaries. Almeida himself has an unusual day job for a bandleader: He’s a judge who hears both criminal and civil cases. (Earlier, he was a professional soccer player; another band member is a real estate broker.)
The band of 14 is in such demand, in fact, that it has two musicians for each spot. While one seven-member Tal National lineup is doing the current North American tour, an equally proficient and feisty crew is back home doing weddings and other gigs.
“We have so many requests that we have to double up,” Almeida says. “People wouldn’t understand why we’re unavailable. And we have to leave something at home because it’s our source. It’s an umbilical cord between us and the Niger public.”
In the spirit of the classic West African orchestras of the 1970s, such as Mali’s Rail Band or Guinea’s Bembeya National, Tal National plays long concerts — at least at home, where a five-hour show is expected and appreciated — made up of intricate, high-spirited numbers in which all the musicians get space in the spotlight.
The sound is polyglot, reflecting Niger’s ethnic diversity and that of the band: Almeida, the leader and guitarist, is Tuareg; the talking-drums player on this tour is Hausa; one singer is Zarma, and so on. Lyrics are in Niger’s different languages, and not only the rhythms but their underlying cultural themes come from across the country.
The song “Kodaje,” for instance, invokes a Zarma genie who can foretell events like the quality of the next harvest. “Saraounia” calls on a female Hausa genie. “It’s a possession dance, and the singer can go into a trance,” Almeida says.
Other songs gently push the boundaries of Niger’s culture, which skews more conservative than that of neighboring Mali, and where some Islamic authorities object to non-religious performance, even though music is anchored in deep community traditions.
“They say it’s haram [forbidden],” Almeida says. “When children sing our songs instead of reciting the Quran, they’re unhappy with us. But one doesn’t prevent the other! We’re fervent Muslims ourselves.”
On “Sey Wata Gaya,” they defend their identity as musicians. “We tell extremists that everyone has a vice,” Almeida says. “So if music is a vice, that’s ours.”
And “Zoy Zoy,” the title track, expresses the defiant joy of a young woman who has returned to her husband’s house after giving birth to their first child. “Her mother has taken care of her, fed her, given her lotions so she’s glowing,” Almeida says. “She tells her husband, ‘See how beautiful I am!’ She’s challenging him in bed.”
The lyric, he says, is a traditional theme heard at weddings. “All we did was give it a modern arrangement. Some people may find it crude, but we want to display our culture, and it’s not some small group of extremists who can stop us.”
‘We have so many requests that we have to double up. [Locals] wouldn’t understand why we’re unavailable. And we have to leave something at home. . . . It’s an umbilical cord between us and the Niger public.’
Niger faces considerable stress. In January, anti-government protests degenerated when vandals destroyed churches and attacked bars. The army is helping to fight the Boko Haram insurgency in neighboring Nigeria, while keeping a wary eye on the chaos in Libya, another neighbor. Niger also has the world’s fastest-growing population, with a fertility rate of more than seven children per woman.
In this context, Tal National plays a double role: not only ambassadors of Niger’s culture for foreigners, but also messengers of progress and national unity. Almeida says that because people know he is a judge, they give his views attention and respect.
Down the line, he sees culture as an avenue for social development, and urges the government to invest in artists and facilities. There’s only so much one band can do, no matter how philanthropically inclined.
“We’re waiting for the state to truly support culture, so that many oxen pull the cart,” he says. “Right now, it’s just one ox.”Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.