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Tal National – Kaani

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Tal National - KaaniBlurbgloss: Niger, cheap gear, poor part of the world. Seems like Tal National are more like a big band (shifting members) than a group/band per se. As with proper parts of the world with a decent live music culture (e.g., everywhere other than the UK), they play five hours sets most nights. It seems like they’ve been popular for a fair while and, as with a million places the world over, the world stage is none the wiser.

Now. With a lot of stuff from traditions outside of Europe, there’s a bit of a critical gap when talking about the music – the sort of stuff that’d orient my talking about it – knowing the cultural background and the geo-political status of traditional music is missing. Here though, it’s not as missing as it was with the Jagwa Music record I reviewed here recently. Tal National have some links with Afrobeat/Highlife and the sort of thing that’s relatively well represented in my part of the world. So while I’m by no means an expert, it feels like it’s easier to talk about because this isn’t a ‘tradition’ in the sense of being a million years old – the rhythms are, of course, a long way from the sort of European syncopations that are my bread-and-butter, but there’s a wealth of this stuff available in Europe since the ’70s.

The instrumental make-up: slinky, bubbly bass, a lead singer with emphatic antiphon chorus, some seriously heavy, pokey, octavey guitar duos and a slew of hand percussion accentuating a hi-hat and bass trap kit. The press blurb does that dreadful thing of describing the rhythms as ‘trance-inducing’ which is a bit of a trite cliché for my money. And, of course, I’m not really going to do any better… There’s probably a name for it, and a better/ more accurate way of describing it, but it seems like the rhythms are often in three parts – with the barlines (per se) obscured under West Africa’s virtuosity with rhythm. So the bassline tends to put the bar at the end of a slide and do some nice moving about in 5ths; the guitar seems to finish its motif halfway through the bar and the trap drums seem to be going in cycles of two and a bit times that. It’s dangerous talking about compound times here because it doesn’t really belong to expansion of conventional time, but with those African rhythms that have their own interior logic that makes me realise what a rhythmic dilettante I really am. So the ‘trance-inducing’ isn’t really indicative of some mongy repetition but that it’s really bastard difficult to follow the multiple rhythms at once. Perhaps we could replace the word ‘trance’ with ‘stupefying’.

I’m quite often the sort of person who says guitars are shit (they are) but that’s mostly due to their widespread abuse rather than their existence. The guitars here are lovely. There’s a kind of major/minor guitar interplay here – both playing cyclic variations with those lovely octaves but one being slightly more prominent and more likely to drift into a period of less rhythmic attention (‘solo’ being a silly word here). The staccato playing is really crisp – cheap gear often has the virtue of meaning high actions, which are great for these pointy lines. There’s a funny thing where none of this initially seems ‘fast’ until later on in the song – elements aren’t added so much as made more dense and all the little tacks and tings from the percussionists becomes insect fields around things. I’m just listening to it again now and I’ve hit track 4 (“Nouvelles”) and realised that it’s got a sped-up dub quality to it and my take on the rhythm is masses off. Sorry about that. And it’s got a really strange major key interlude. And some very skitty and taut hi-hat work.

Ok, so yeah – basically, it’s an album that’s got quite an array of confusing and exciting rhythmic ideas – relatively simple on the melody, leaving the instrumentalists to bristle away. It’s like dance music from a different planet because for me it’s basically dance music from a different planet. Full of sweat and pound and subtlety and complexity and the best sort of repetition-not-repetition. It’s a world away from Fela Kuti but it’s definitely the sort of thing that’s going to be near him in my collection. Cracking.

-Kev Nickells-

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