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Music

Tidiane Thiam's Spare and Beautiful 'Siftorde' Never Wastes a Sound

Photo: Karen Antunes / Courtesy of Sahel Sounds

Guitarist Tidiane Thiam plays Senegalese folk over river ambiance on his nimble debut, Siftorde.

Siftorde
Tidiane Thiam

Sahel Sounds

15 May 2020

The small town of Podor lies between the Doué and Sénégal rivers, on an arid island just across the border from Mauritania. Senegal's northernmost village, it counts among its internationally-known local luminaries musicians Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck.

The self-taught guitarist and folklorist Tidiane Thiam, too, hails from Podor. No stranger to international recording industries -- his guitar work has appeared on compilations and in collaborations on Portland-based label, Sahel Sounds, for years -- he has nonetheless rarely stepped into the spotlight himself. New solo LP Siftorde changes that -- and doesn't. On the one hand, it showcases Thiam's guitar work, done in his unique style of fingerpicking: tight in terms of skill, loose in terms of texture, with roots in centuries-old string-playing techniques. On the other, even on his solo release, Thiam is not one to force his way to center stage. Instead, Siftorde positions him as just one part of the acoustic environment, the single microphone he uses to record picking up not only his music, but the life around him. A soundscape of softly chattering crickets makes for almost as prominent a sonic element of the record as his guitar. But only almost.

While the atmosphere is thick and lively, Thiam's masterful musicianship rises easily to the forefront. Deliberate though it is, there is a persistently ambient quality to his work, made up as it is of loping curves and breezy melodic runs. Thiam's guitar work has a palm-wine lilt with laid-back grooves, each track structured as organic progressions and variations of melodic phrases. Often, the pieces seem to blend into a fluid whole, never so far removed from one another as to break the mood set by the atmospheric ephemera that binds Siftorde together. Still, they are distinct enough to hold an audience rapt and relaxed, immersed in sounds of seemingly effortless proficiency as well as natural bliss.

Fans of contemporary West African acoustic folk will likely hear Siftorde and think of luminaries like seminal Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré or the gentler works of Bassekou Kouyaté or Toumani Diabaté, the latter of whom is even referenced in a track title on Siftorde. But just as apt are comparisons to any number of guitarists from across the globe. Thiam's dexterity brings to mind the mellower cuts of John Fahey and Robbie Basho. The sense of intimacy that a single microphone recording session allows brings to mind the vulnerabilities common to more stripped-down indie scenes -- think José González. Perhaps most fundamental to Thiam's sound, though, is an openness that evokes pastoral visions, striking the same proverbial chord as do folk revivalists worldwide.

Universally appealing, Siftorde is still inextricable from the space and time of Thiam's recording sessions in Podor, and that is as it should be. It is Thiam's experience that gives this album its unique character, humanity connected to the broader world and channeled through music. Siftorde's strength is this sense of being content in a larger whole and in paying attention to subtle changes rather than being constantly, exhaustingly on the move. Tidiane Thiam is a master of living in the moment and setting it to music. Siftorde encapsulates that beautifully, never wasting a sound.

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