, May 19th, 2015 20:07
Tal National's sound fabric on new album Zoy Zoy is intricate and colourful. The music turns in wild and unexpected directions as psychedelic hues emerge and patterns form that may not have previously seemed possible. Each line meticulously linked together, yet each time developed into something fresh, never quite unravelling altogether throughout the polyrhythmic duels between the musicians. Any loose ends are meticulously sewn up into tightly stitched arrangements.
It is two years since last album Kaani propelled Tal National to an audience outside of Africa, but the beginnings of their story trace back more than 15 years to 2000, when the group formed in Niger capital Niamey. In addition to their day jobs, they would perform at clubs for marathon five hour sets into the early hours of the morning. They did this every night. According to reports, their live show employs from six to as many as 13 members – and where necessary they could split to play two separate gigs. Just as likely is the sight of drummer's swapping sticks mid-song without missing a beat. When a new release was ready the group would make CDs, cassettes and DVDs and sell copies at roundabouts in the city centre. Tal National are now well known at home, having spent the past decade criss-crossing 40 cities across the country by bus and pick-up truck, building up their reputation with appearances on national TV – clips of which led to them being seen all over the world via the Internet. They released their debut Apokte in 2006 and since 2008's A-na Waya have built their more powerful sound with Chicago-based recording engineer Jamie Carter, who has visited Niger with a mobile studio.
Today the Tal National sound is developed and honed to the point that the panic-strewn guitar acrobatics explode on each of Zoy Zoy's tracks – over 46 minutes and eight tracks the relentless energy never lets up. The group's use of Hausa's fuji percussion creates head spinning rhythms in 12/8 time – a measure of 12 counts, each one eighth of a note long, with the counts divided into four groups of three. The diverse north African influences from Malian blues, desert rock, afrobeat and highlife can all be heard within their grooves. This musical mix is no surprise given the group's geographical location – Niger is neighboured by Nigeria, Mali and Ghana in the north west of Africa, and this is also reflected in the make-up of Tal National's members, as Songhai, Fulani, Hausa and Tuareg populations are represented.
The title track, and album opener, 'Zoy Zoy' incorporates many of these styles, with a Saharan assouf-like intro riff, before hyper guitar licks come in, complex in structure, but somehow pinned down by vocal repetition as the title is recited over and over. The female backing vocals add a touch of Afrobeat swing as familiar themes return throughout the arrangement, yet there are still plenty of turns as freestyle vocals are matched by increasingly hypnotic and sped up passages of lead guitarist (and former footballer) Hamadal 'Almeida' Moumine's afro-math-rock arrangements.
'Sey Wata Gaya' is built around repetitive guitar lines, bass rumbles and off beat drums and percussion that tumble around each other, while a chanted street gang-style call and response vocal keeps everything together. In a rare moment of calm, 'Kodaje' follows a funky highlife template, with added organ replicating a sound from decades past, yet still with a militaristic snare-led rhythm that keeps melodies piling up, singer Souleymane's soulful voice strained to the limit of his range in duet with the female backing chorus. By its conclusion the song has again tied itself in knots, into an ever-impossible arrangement and keeps the music firmly in the future/now.
Despite the chaos of the incredible arrangements the group's discipline never shows signs of losing focus, and there is an undeniable sweet side, especially on the single 'Claire' and album closer 'Saraounia,' named after a spirit, the track deals with possession.
Tal National's lineup may feature a traditional rock set up of guitar, bass and drums, but their intensity while keeping a relatively clean sound is quite unlike anything else. Distilling many popular African music styles, while never replicating any – it sounds purely like Tal National, and throughout Zoy Zoy their sound leaves no room to contemplate anything else once it sucks you in. And on that thread, Zoy Zoy really is top.