When you hear or read the phrase ‘desert blues,’ particular associations immediately come to mind: Heat and dust and a certain lazy lethargy. However, despite the last of these of associations, much desert blues is produced by groups larger than a typical Western band, or by solo artists accompanied by such groups. It’s not uncommon for these groups to feature three or even four stringed instruments, two or three pieces of percussion and a couple of voices. The end result is a sound that is perhaps best described as full: The atmosphere conjured might be so languid as to almost be narcotic, but there is often a sense of urgency underlying it, a relaxed intensity propelled by the breadth of sound and multi-layered rhythms.
Waande Kadde by Amadou Binta Konté and Tidiane Thiam upsets this metaphorical applecart.
While it is technically a recorded improvisational meeting between Konté and Thiam – the former a lifelong fisherman from rural Northern Senegal, the latter an artist and folklorist from that region’s capital – it deserves so much more than this dry description. It is a meeting of two different generations, of rural and urban, of traditional and contemporary, of African and Western instrumentation (Konté plays the hoddu, the traditional 4 or 5-string ‘guitar’ of Western Africa; Thiam an acoustic Western-style guitar). Konté and Tidiane themselves describe their sound as “an ode to the sleepy landscape” of Waande Kadde – Konté’s riverbank village in Northern Senegal, where the recording took place – and this is perhaps the perfect phrase for what they created. More so than any other desert blues I’ve heard, their record truly reflects the calmness and sparseness of the parched desert plains.
Gone are the pulsing percussive undertones, the layers of polyrhythms and the call-and-response vocals typical of so much desert blues. Instead, Waande Kadde is an extremely relaxed and respectful meeting of two kindred musical spirits united in their tribute to a land that they love, one full of breath and space. Konté’s hoddu and Tidiane’s guitar unhurriedly weave long major-key riffs, their respective instruments coming together and then drifting apart and then beginning the process again, each repetition of the riff subtly different than the last, their interplay constantly changing, creating a hypnotic atmosphere both sedate and soothing, an atmosphere that clears your mind and untethers you from the earth and sets your mind drifting.
The same musical themes and motifs crop up throughout the songs, giving their ‘jam’ the feeling of some kind of spontaneously born whole that Konté and Tidiane were merely channelling. And it truly feels like a jam, like two old friends meeting up and sharing themselves without the need for words – this is due, of course, to its peaceful and becalmed atmosphere, but also to the fact that Konté’s children can often be heard in the background. They laugh and cry out happily, apparently curious to see what their dad is up to. They sometimes join in, clapping along or stomping their feet. And despite the improvisational nature of their jam, because Konté and Thiam are so in tune with each other’s playing, and because they both draw upon “the same folkloric base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger,” it feels like they have been playing these songs their whole lives, and will continue to do so until they die.
It is a truly beautiful record.