Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
The Super Rail Band, or the Super Rail Band of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, Bamako, to give them their full name, might be Mali's best-kept secret. Loved by world music cognoscenti, they've never found a general audience, due in large part to having only a few, poorly-distributed records. But as well as being an incubator for some of the country's great singing talent, they've also become an institution and a legend. It all began in 1970, when Mali's Ministry of Information decided to sponsor a band in the country's capital, Bamako. Since Mali gained independence in the early '60s, the government had sponsored music to emphasize the local culture, but now it was cutting back on some of the programs, and this seemed a cheap alternative to the more ambitious plans. They had a venue -- the Buffet Hotel at the city's train station -- and with the musicians in place, the gigs became regular events. The first lineup centered around guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, who remained a constant throughout the band's tenure, and original singer Salif Keita. The albino Keita, whose lineage was that of royal blood, was so embarrassed by his albino looks and to be doing a griot's work of singing at their first show, that he sang from the back of the stage with a towel over his head. The band worked in the Malian Manding tradition, with some touches of Congolese rumba, and became a smash, thanks to the mix of vocals and long workout instrumentals, where Tounkara quickly established himself as one of the continent's best axemen -- the equivalent of any Western guitar god. Keita quickly adjusted to being on display, and soon was one of the centerpieces of the band with his high, wailing voice, leaving two years later to start a rival group, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel. He was replaced by another great voice, Mory Kante, who would go on to become a major solo star. The tenure of the first two vocalists was commemorated on Rail Band, where the none-too-hi fidelity recordings still managed to capture the energy of the ensemble on griot classics like "Soundiata." However, they essentially remained a live, local group, and it wasn't until 1985's New Dimensions in Rail Culture, on the Globestyle label, that they were properly recorded. By then the band had turned over personnel, with a new set of singers and players behind Tounkara. As the popularity of world music increased in the late '80s and early '90s, the Rail Band became known by critics and lauded. But their music wasn't widely available, which meant that the general public never had much chance to become acquainted with their very sophisticated sound. A U.S. tour in 1990 helped somewhat, but with no follow-up and no new product, any momentum they had was lost. The Rail Band didn't return to the studio until 1994, releasing Djoungouya Magni on the French Indigo label, then releasing Mansa, also on Indigo, a year later (released U.S. 2000). Mansa was by far the best recording they'd made, both sonically and musically, capturing the full range of their sound, from the griot epics to the funk they'd taken on board over the years, and even incorporating touches of jazz in the antiphonal phrasing between Tounkara's guitar and the horns. Since then they've toured in Europe, but released no more recordings, although Tounkara was the central figure in author Banning Eyre's book In Griot Time.