Jamie Carter didn't know much about Chicago when he moved here in 2001 at age 20. "I didn't even know how big the lake was," he says. "In the beginning of the Oprah show there would be a shot of lakefront buildings, and I always assumed they took that photo from the other side of the lake." He didn't know anyone in Chicago either, but he doesn't hesitate when asked what brought him here: Touch and Go, Steve Albini, and Thrill Jockey. "If those things all existed there, then it must be a decent place," he remembers thinking. Carter says he had enough cash in his pocket to last ten days at the Arlington Youth Hostel, and he figured that if he didn't have any luck he would leave himself enough for a bus ticket back to San Diego, where he'd relocated the year before after spending most of his first 19 years in New Zealand.
A dozen years later, Carter is still in Chicago. He's married, with his own successful recording studio (his clients include Psalm One and Chance the Rapper), and plays drums in the rock band Judson Claiborne. But that doesn't mean he's settled down to the point that he won't take the same sort of chances that initially brought him here. In fact, his latest adventure began with another blind leap—this one to a place he knew even less about, and that's considerably further afield.
Five years ago Carter flew to Niamey, Niger, to record a band he'd never heard. "The details were just to come record an album," says Carter, now 32. "They would pay for the plane ticket and they would take care of everything. For me that was all I needed to know. I was up for whatever." Today he's more consumed than he ever would've imagined with Tal National—an ebullient guitar-driven band that cleverly fuses a variety of West African styles, among them Congolese soukous (Cuban-influenced music with its roots in African rumba) and Senegalese mbalax (Westernized dance music, popularized by Youssou N'Dour, that incorporates traditional sabar drumming). For the past two weeks he's been serving as driver, tour manager, and sound man on Tal National's first U.S. tour. Earlier this year—thanks in large part to Carter—Fat Cat Records issued the band's third and best album, Kaani, its first to be released outside Africa. On October 17, Carter will get to sleep in his own bed after the group plays at Martyrs', but then he's back on the road for some east-coast shows.
Carter still vividly remembers his introduction to the band on that trip to Niger five years ago. "The first night I saw Tal National perform my jaw dropped and my mind was blown," he says. "Music is as close to a religion as it gets for me, and I guess you could say that on that first night I had an experience that made me a fanatic."
In a way, Carter's journey to Niger began in October 2008, when he met guitarist Hamadal Issoufou Moumine (better known by his nickname, Almeida). Almeida was in Chicago to participate in the Chicago Calling Festival; multi-instrumentalist Dan Godston, who organized the festival, had crossed paths with Almeida two years earlier in Lisbon, Portugal, at the UNESCO Conference on Arts Education. (In addition to being a musician, Almeida teaches music and drama at an orphanage in Niamey and works as a judge.) At Godston's urging, Almeida participated in the first two iterations of Chicago Calling telematically, then flew to Chicago for the 2008 installment to perform at Heaven Gallery with jazz guitarist Bill MacKay and percussionist Jamie Topper, who was then Carter's bandmate in Judson Claiborne.
To document the collaboration, Topper called on Carter to record a couple of tracks in a hurried late-night session at Carter's east Pilsen studio, Carterco. "As I was recording and mixing them down," Carter says, "I noticed Almeida watching me and asking questions." By his own admission, Carter was "very unaware" of world music at the time. But when Almeida asked if he had the equipment to record remotely, "I said yes, even though I didn't, because I understood where he seemed to be going with his questions," Carter recalls. "I didn't want to pass up that potential opportunity."
Two days later, in mid-October, Carter was invited to Niger to record Almeida's band, Tal National. On December 6 he left for Niamey with a laptop, recording software, and eight microphones. He didn't even know how many members were in the band—or that, aside from Almeida, none of them spoke English.
During the Carterco recording session, Almeida had played only the traditional Nigerien lute known as the gurumi. "Right up until I was in Niamey and at the music venue [where Tal National play nightly], I still thought I'd be recording traditional music—I thought it would be similar to what he did at my studio," Carter recalls. "I hadn't heard any demos or anything."
What he heard at the venue that first night hit him like a thunderclap. "Tal National were my entry point into West African guitar music," says Carter, who realized that the six-member band's guitar-based setup wasn't that far removed from the rock bands he worked with every day in Chicago. He was "really impressed with the musicianship," he says, and became an instant convert.
But recording the band proved tricky. The studio in Niamey—part of a government-run arts complex—was in disarray, covered in dust, and equipped with an inoperable half-inch eight-track deck. Carter used some mike stands and drum mikes from the studio, but otherwise he relied primarily on the minimal gear he'd brought along. His visit to Niamey lasted just six exhilarating days, with the band tracking the album in three daylong sessions sandwiched between its marathon nightclub performances.
Throughout the first half of 2009, he mixed the record during his downtime in Chicago. "The process was long because the revisions were all done over e-mail and the Internet is not good in Niger. They would download the MP3s and take notes and then e-mail me the stuff back." The band released that album, A-Na Waya, in the summer, after a tedious process that required Almeida to travel to Accra, Ghana—a two-day drive—to wait for the recording to be sent to England for mastering, then wait some more for the duplication of cassettes and CDs once that was finished.
It was worth it. The record became a huge hit by Nigerien standards, selling more than 12,000 copies.
But Carter had no luck finding a U.S. label to release A-Na Waya. He wanted desperately to return to Niger to work with the band again, and Tal National was eager to bring him back. With the band covering his travel and lodging—and Carter pulling in $1,200 via Kickstarter to compensate for his lost earnings at home—he returned to Niger in January 2011 to make what would become Kaani. During this visit Tal National recorded twice as much material as would end up on the record. Carter could see that the operation of the band had changed. Niger's minister of culture visited the studio with a TV crew during the recording sessions, and Carter frequently heard the music playing on the radio in Niamey restaurants and taxis. They'd become local stars.
Like A-Na Waya, Kaani contains a handful of songs with heavy Auto-Tune effects on the vocals, a sound that's wildly popular in Niger but provoked criticism from the U.S. labels to whom Carter had pitched the earlier album. So for Kaani, Carter mixed a U.S. version that's Auto-Tune free.
The band celebrated Kaani's release with a July 2011 show, selling 4,000 tickets at $10 each—an exorbitant price in Niger. But Carter wasn't having much luck bringing the band or the album to the States. That summer he began seeking out other African musicians playing in Chicago, including Niger's Bombino and Tuareg singer Khaira Arby. At a performance by the latter, he met Chris Nolan of Clermont Music, who manages many African artists and releases their music.
"He didn't take the project under his wings or anything, but after all the lack of interest, to have someone give me the time of day and say, 'You can do this,' was really nice."
Around the same time, Judson Claiborne front man Chris Salveter became a fan of Tal National's music and played it for Derek Becker of Strange Victory, a Chicago booking agency. Becker became such a fan that he took the group on as a client, even though they had no record deal. Becker and Carter began working together to find a label to release the record, to no avail. But their fortunes changed after Carlos Tortolero, the key organizer of Chicago's World Music Festival, accepted Tal National's application to perform at the 2013 installment of the event. The offer included travel from Niger to Chicago.
That invitation—and the promise of a U.S. tour—ended up breaking down the record-label barrier. After meeting Mice Parade bandleader Adam Pierce—the group played Schubas in February of this year—Carter finally scored. Pierce is one of the folks behind British indie-rock label Fat Cat, and he jumped at the chance to release Kaani, which came out in the U.S. and in Europe last month.
The band was supposed to kick off its tour at the World Music Festival a month ago, but there was a hitch: the group's visas weren't processed in time, thanks to a two-week shutdown of the U.S. embassy in Niamey in August. When the embassy finally got the required immigration interview on the books, it was scheduled for the day after the band's flight to the States. Diplomatic wrangling from Chicago and the Nigerien government failed, so the band's tour was delayed until October 6, starting in Minneapolis. The Martyrs' concert on October 17 was hastily scheduled, along with a string of east-coast dates originally set for September.
When I spoke with Carter during the third day of the tour, he said he didn't know what would come next for him and Tal National, but he's almost messianic in his devotion to them. "I hope more doors will start to open for the band," he says.
Two days before their October 5 flight arrived, he flew to New York to pick up the van Fat Cat owns for touring bands, then drove it straight to Chicago in time for the group to arrive in town. After the Minneapolis show on October 7, he drove for most of the trip to Portland for a show there on the ninth.
For now he's just happy to be hanging with the musicians he admires and watching them play. "Seeing Tal National perform in Niamey was amazing. It's the best thing in the world. So I wanted to have that experience again."