Saturday, September 22, 2007

RAIL BAND - Belle Epoque Volume One - Soundiata (Sterns)

Volume one of three double-CDs covering the early, dizzyingly creative years of one of Mali's iconic bands, and crucible for many of the musical trends that emerged from the capital Bamako as well as being a proving ground for some of the biggest names in West African music. The biggest of all being Salif Keita, and he it was who in 1970 was persuaded by bandleader Tidiani Koné to join the Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare (to give them their full name) to play for foreign businessman as they arrived in the city.
Hence the melting pot of sounds on the very earliest of the tracks here, Keita's already powerful voice soaring over basic Latino percussion, horns, electric guitar and Koné's bluesy tenor sax on the hypnotic Mali Cebalenw as well as one of three versions (with three different spellings!) of the classic title track of this collection, dedicated to the great 13th Century Malian emperor Soundiata Keita.
The 1975 version of that song featuring Keita's replacement (usurper?), the masterful Mory Kanté, is also here in all its epic 27-minute splendour, its modern folkloric flavouring in complete contrast to the heavy hint of Cuban classic El Manicero on Armee Maliennes from the same period. A word too for the often overlooked vocal constant throughout this period, Magan Ganessy, who in less exalted company would be a more celebrated singer, in particular for his expressive, lucid phrasing on Duga. Djelimady Tounkara was the lead guitarist by this point, taking to a whole new level the vibrant, rolling guitar figures that course through all Rail Band recordings. There is just the one track from the post-Kanté period from the late ‘70s onwards, but what a track it is. Some rather obtrusive organ can't prevent Maliyo from being a brooding Rail Band classic, featuring the rich vocals of Lanfia Diabaté and the mesmeric Tounkara once more on guitar. All of which augurs well for the rest of the series.

This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.

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