Tag Archives: senegal

it takes two – waande kadde & top wzn

waande kadde & top wzn

Starting off this new year with two new releases: Waande Kadde, dreamy acoustic Pulaar music from the villages of Fouta Toro, and Top WZN, synth, drum machines, and electric tidnit from the capital city of Mauritania. While they are immediately sonically different, they bear more similarities than one may suspect. Both are from the extreme West of the Sahel, geographically miles away. Both are improvisational sessions performed and recorded without any preparation. And both involve the meeting of the traditional and the modern, and the emergent new sounds that come from this encounter.

Tidiane Thiam’s and Amadou Binta Konte’s Waande Kadde, was recorded in the village by the same name – a tiny burg on the banks of the winding Senegal River, on the island of Morfil, in the extreme North of Senegal. Amadou Binta Konté is a fisherman, not a griot, but nevertheless plays the hoddu – a variant of the traditional lute found throughout West Africa. In Fouta Toro, the body of the hoddu is carved out of wood and goat or sheep skin is stretched over the resonator. The “strings” are made of braided nylon fishing line, and attached to the neck with small strips of leather. Tidiane Thiam, guitarist of the group Lewlewal de Podor, plays acoustic guitar modeled on the hoddu.

Guitar songs are played in a major scale (in contrast to the pentatonic scale of Northern Mali) in traditional Pulaar and Manding tunings. There is a common technique of playing with octaves and doubling. The contemporary guitar of Tidiane, while embodied in a different instrument, is very much bound to its predecessor, and nowhere is this more apparent than hearing them together. For our recordings in 2014, we traveled to Waande Kadde to sit with the two musicians in person. This is not the first time the two had played together, yet the music was improvisational. While both Amadou and Tidiane use different instruments, they play within the “folkloric” base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger.

TOP WZN is a far cry from the mellow sounds of Waande Kadde – though geographically, it is only a stones throw into Mauritania (literally the other side of the river). The album (originally released on cassette in 2009) showcases Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla, playing a signature genre of instrumental music. Transliterized as “alwazan” “wezen” or “wzn”, literally translated as “rhythm,” it colloquially refers to a contemporary genre of instrumental music, defined by synthesizers, electric guitars and lutes, and electronic drum patterns. Jeich Ould Badu is from a celebrated family of griots, and learned to play music at a young age. He plays the tidnit, the traditional Hassaniya lute – modified and updated, the goat skin replaced by flattened tin, and hacked together with phaser pedals and built in pre-amps. Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla is one of the most well known keyboard musicians in Mauritania. He plays an Arabic moded synthesizer capable of the quarter tone scales adapted from the fretless strings of classical Moorish traditions.

Popular Mauritanian music is often performed publicly with large troupes of guitarists, tidnits, synthesizers, and multiple rhythm sections. But in the past decade, the influx of small recording studios and a booming cassette industry has led to artist driven productions. WZN has followed suit, and has been transformed into an established genre. The slick studio sound, warbling tidnit, and microtones of the synthesizer are an integral part of today’s musical landscape, blasting from open air music shops and taxi cabs throughout the capital.

Both releases are now available on limited vinyl and digital download.


tidiane thiam

On the last visit, in the fall, we spent a few days in Podor, a small colonial town that sits in the interior of Senegal on the banks of the river. It had been about two years and everyone was a bit older. A few people had passed, and a few more had been born. The city itself was more or less the same. Horse carriages crowded the center of town, coming in from all the surrounding villages on market day, but otherwise it was slow and calm. Like the river, Podor always seems still, and you have to look closely to see that things are moving.

Tidiane Thiam, solo guitarist and folklorist of the group Lewlewal (previously) had his first child during our stay. He was a father of a only few days when our departure arrived, but we managed to do something I had wanted for years – some simple instrumental recordings of himself and the guitar.

Tidiane is an artist and folklorist. An autodidact in the truest sense, he learned to play the guitar by listening to radio broadcasts late into the evening. He sometimes makes art, strange paintings of hands and symbols, and for many years he worked as an intern under the famous Podor portrait photographer, Oumar Ly. He plays guitar in the style common to Fouta Toro, influenced by Guinean styles – Hal Pulaar folklore guitar, made famous by another Podor resident, Baaba Maal. Most of the songs are played with “double gamm,” a doubling of the notes. Nearly all are played in major scales in standard tuning. The music is nostalgic and pensive, very different from the pentatonic scales associated with the desert. A little more green, perhaps.

It was our last night when we finally had a chance to record with Tidiane, and he played songs until the very early hours. Lewlewal means moonlight, but this night there was no moon, only stars.

Tidiane Instrumental 1

Tidiane Instrumental 2

Moonlight in the Gold Port

Lewlewal de Podor – Jamfa

I met the group Lewlewal in 2009 (previously). I had been in Nouakchott for four months and needed a break. Driving on the road to Fouta Toro, the Northern region of Senegal, the temperature increased exponentially. It was April, and once the cool comfort of the sea is gone, the parched earth and the sun fills the void. Podor, the little town by the river, was my destination – an ancient town, but a place I had only chosen based on a whim. It was the hometown of Baaba Maal, and I thought it would be a good a place as any to find some guitarists. I met Baye Aly the second day I was in town at his business, directed by a man in a bar who told me simply to “find the barbershop”. Baye answered with a guitar in hand.

Demba Doka Barry, Tidiane Thiam, Baye Aly Ndiongue, Ahmet Ndiongue

I stayed with the band for a week that time — lodging at Baye’s family compound in the center of town, meeting his wife and then newborn child. We played guitar until late in the night, when the cool air would lift off the river and hand in the branches of the trees. There was never talk of a record, but we recorded nevertheless. Most of the sessions were used to make a promo CD to get the band a gig on the tourist boat that came to town twice a week. Later, they would be used in the record Ishilan n-Tenere.

I came back two years later, this last April, this time with the intention of producing an album. The resulting album is a week and a half’s worth of recordings that were taken on a visit back in town. Sessions made in the early morning, spontaneous moments with a guitar around tea, or late night rehearsals with a glowing amplifier in the yard, under the moon.

photo by Oumar Ly, Thioffy Studio, Podor, Senegal

The album is now available, a co-release between sahelsounds and mississippi/little axe, available on vinyl and via bandcamp. There are liner notes inside, plus a photo from Oumar Ly, Senegal’s esteemed portrait photographer shooting for over forty years. The cover is an original painting from Nouakchott sign painter Thiam Bellou.

The title of the album, Yiilo Jaam, translates to “Looking for Peace”. Podor is just that, the river and the greenery a temporary respite from the harsh Sahel, a quiet alternative to the crowded urbanity. If there is a search for peace, then I like to think that Lewlewal has found it.

Download here — for a mere $3, or pay more as you want (15% to bandcamp, remainder 60% to the band)…


Amadou Binta Konté – Simba, ma jata limi

Amadou Binta Konté has played the five stringed Hoddu for over 40 years. He’s not a musician, but a cuuballo, one of the fishermen living alongside the Senegal river as it cuts between Senegal and Mauritania. He sometimes plays in local ceremonies, marriages, and baptisms. But mostly he plays for himself and his family.

Amadou accompanied by Lewlewal de Podor

We travel to Wandekadde, as Amadou rarely climbs into a vehicle, preferring to walk on his own two feet. I ask him how he came to play the Hoddu:

One day, when I was young, there was a canoe that was passing by. Inside was a man, playing the Hoddu. I heard it and stopped what I was doing. I watched him as he drifted down the river, until he was far away, and eventually the man, the canoe, and the sound disappeared. Later that night while I was going to sleep, I heard the sound again, as the canoe passed by, playing as they traveled home.

I woke in the morning, inspired. I went into the forest to find some wood, to build a hoddu. I attached some strings. I had no idea how to play, but I would try anyways. I put the strings on, and tightened them, loosened them, tightened them, trying tunings until I heard what sounded right.

The next day, I was supposed to go fishing. In the morning, my father heard the sound and asked “Who is playing?” He ran into my room and saw me playing the Hoddu. He said, “Since when did you learn to play?” I replied, “Since last night.”

Amadou Binta Konté’s story – Pulaar

Galanka (or “Boutilimit”) is a song that sings of Galanka, a famous Pulaar warrior/hero. The song was used to galvanize warriors, to prepare them for battle. When sung, a new verse has been added at the end that references the Saharan war of the 1970’s against the Polisario — again, used to mobilize and prepare the Mauritanian Pulaar who traveled into the Western Sahara to fight the Polisario.

Amadou Binta Konté – Galanka

Amadou is featured on the new Lewlewal release, available here and on vinyl here. More info coming soon.


Souleyman Marr – Pekane

In the fluvial region of Northern Senegal, Fouta Toro retains some of the remnants of the highly stratified society it once was. Cuballo are the fisherman caste. They’re not low of the hierarchical strata, somewhere below the “nobles”, but well above the blacksmiths and griots. As fisherman, they live alongside the river and make their living from the meandering rivers trickling to the sea. The cuballo are also practitioners of the pekane.

In a poetic portrayal, Pekane is performed during a hunt, the performer joining the men at the rivers edge as they compete to spear crocodiles and hippopotamuses, singing praises to their character and those of great lives past — confident words to inspire courage. In some aspects, the pekane overlaps with the roles of the griots – it draws from family genealogies, village histories, and tales of local heroes. But included in this repertoire is a more mystical aspect: the incantations, the hypnotizing spells, the esoteric and nonsensical phrases that can be cast over the dark river to call forth animals. I hear of endless accounts of the magical cuballos who, simply by uttering a phrase, can send fish jumping into their canoe. Indeed the origin of the pekane itself is supernatural – the words were given by a Djinn to a man named Demba J, the first Pekane practitioner before anyone can remember.

Souleyman Marr comes from a generational lineage of cuballo. His indoctrination into pekane is not so direct. Born in the village of Ngaoule, Souleyman grew up as a fisherman, listening to the pekane broadcasts over the radio, and as he came of age he decided to learn the trade. Most of his material he learned from traveling through the region, conducting ethnographic fieldwork, collecting folktales and stories from the elder inhabitants of sleepy river villages. But a large part of his repertoire came from radio broadcasts, cassettes, and later digital mp3s — recordings of the late Guelaye Ali Fall, the first poet to popularize the pekane.

Isolated groups have always proved a fertile ground for research, speculation, and hypotheses, if for anything else, because they exist outside of external influence — and indeed, this is what much of early ethnomusicology research relied on (see the Georgia Sea Island singers, studied to develop links between New World blues and West Africa). The idea of modern technology as cultural contagion is in itself an old and outdated idea, touted with much less frequency than in earlier ethnographic circles. Rather, the dispersal of information via “new” folk transmission (new in name only, the radio broadcasts carpeting the countryside since the 1960s) has allowed wide dispersal of information. In the case of the pekane, it has done more to encourage tradition than it does to silence it, providing yet another outlet for the expansive histories of the Fouta in the modern world.

In the recording, Souleyman recounts stories from the beginning of the Isle de Morfil until the stretch near Matam. The language is Pulaar, but he would argue the words are not so important to understand. The pekane is a gift of the djinn and significance is of little importance to the power of their sound…