Meet Tal National’s Almeida, A Judge By Day And Electrifying Bandleader By Night

By Steve Kiviat

Niger-based ensemble Tal National plays D.C. Friday night, touring on its ebullient new record, "Zoy Zoy."
Niger-based ensemble Tal National plays D.C. Friday night, touring on its ebullient new record, "Zoy Zoy."

Hamadal Issoufou Moumine works as a judge by day. By night, he plays guitar with his Afropop dance band Tal National, one of the most popular music groups in Niger.

Oh, and Moumine — better known by his nickname, Almeida — also teaches music and drama at an orphanage, and he once played professional soccer. That’s quite a résumé.

zoyzoyAdd to that list of accomplishments Zoy Zoy, the second internationally available record from Tal National, out now on Fat Cat. The ensemble, which formed in 2000, stops in D.C. tonight to play U Street venue Tropicalia. The band varies in size from six to 14 members, and while Almeida (second from left in the photo above) is touring with some of them, other bandmates continue to perform club gigs and weddings under the band’s name back in Niger.

Zoy Zoy, like the group’s 2013 album Kaaniwas produced in Niger by Chicago recording engineer Jamie Carter, who has worked with a number of American indie-rock and pop artists. Carter met Almeida when the busy Nigerien went to Chicago to participate in the Chicago Calling Arts festival, and now he runs live sound for the band on its American tours.

But Zoy Zoy doesn’t sound like the work of an indie popper: Throughout the ebullient record, Tal National derives its rhythms from Nigerien and Malian sounds and keeps listeners moving on the dance floor. The Tuareg desert-blues style — Almeida is Tuareg — shines through in Tal National’s song structures while its lyrics dart between Zarma, Hausa and French, taking on Muslim fundamentalists’ dislike for music on “Say Wata Gaya” (the band’s members are Muslim) and promoting respect and admiration for new mothers on the record’s title track.

In advance of Tal National’s D.C. show tonight, Almeida spoke to me via email.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Bandwidth: How was recording this album different than the prior one?

Hamadal Issoufou Moumine: This record took longer to record and mix than Kaani. We were interested in working on new ideas and elements in the songs. We had a new singer who is Tuareg and Hausa, and the style that he brought to the band influenced our sound on two of the songs. We included more traditional elements in Zoy Zoy, for example the songs “Saraounia” and “Kodaje” are traditional songs used to communicate with spirits.

How did you pick Niger folk songs to adapt? And what are some of them about?

When we hear a song that we like on the national radio, we bring it to the group to adapt and arrange. For the song “Zoy Zoy,” we went to a traditional singer and he sung it into a cell phone for us to record it. We liked his version of “Zoy Zoy” that he performed for wedding and birth ceremonies, so we went directly to him as the source of our adaptation.

How does performing in the U.S. compare to performing at home?

The shows in the U.S. are much shorter, and much more formal. In Niamey [Niger’s capital], our shows end when we decide, and if the energy from the crowd is right they can be very long. Most of the time when we perform in Niamey, we are on the same level as the audience, there is no stage. This makes the interaction between the band and the audience very seamless. In the U.S., the stage creates a barrier between us and the audience. This barrier is very noticeable to us and we make an effort to break down that barrier and interact closer with the audience.

Has playing all over the world changed the band’s sound?

More than anything it has changed the approach of the actions surrounding the performance. The band has seen what is necessary to keep a touring schedule and it involves having better time management and being more professional. We are also now more conscious about our stage presence and the idea that people come to our shows for more than just the music, they want to be entertained.

Did the band members who toured the world all participate in the album, and do they help create the musical tempos and arrangements of the songs?

Yes, the members for Tal National that tour are only half of who is in the band. Everybody that is in the band helps with the creation of the songs. The reason we can only bring half of the band is that it would be too expensive to bring everybody. Everybody in the band deserves equal amounts of recognition for the time and effort they contribute.

Are you still a court judge?

Yes, I plan to keep that job until I retire, which would be another 12 years. It means that I am very busy and I don’t get to sleep a lot. However that job is very important for me and my family because of the stability it provides.

Tal National performs at 8 p.m. tonight at Tropicalia.