The Rail Band: Soundiata (Southbound)

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The Rail Band: Maliyo
The Rail Band: Soundiata (Southbound)

The Rail Band is one of the cornerstone groups out of Mali and launched the careers of Mory Kante and Salif Keita. I first heard them maybe 20 years ago when a salty old journo read something I had written about some African band and guessed my interest.

He'd lived somewhere in the region and had old vinyl which he transferred to tape for me, among them an album by the wonderful Rail Band. I played that tape until one day it unravelled in my car stereo.

So maybe I am much more excited by this reissue -- the first of of three double disc collection tracing the band's career from 1969-83 -- than you might be.

And in fact this isn't music to get excited about, it is music to drift away into, its lazy and jazzy wooze pushed by laidback sax and ear-tickling guitars, the singers casually appearing in the mix.

This was dance music for a time and place where it was probably too hot to move far from the ceiling fans and the chilled palm wine delivered in jugs. You settle in to this music (the opener is 27 effortlessly enticing minutes long).

Resident in the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, the band conjured up a blend of Mandingo pop, light Afro-beat, Western dance band arrangements for horns and Cuban-styled percussion (they couldn't afford a drum kit).

The Rail Band also had to know a good selection of covers to appeal to the hotel's guests who came from Europe, China, North Africa and nearby states. They would learn songs to appeal to the multi-culti audience, and inevitably some of those elements would seep into their own sound.

Fronted first by Salif Keita -- the powerfully voiced albino from a family of high lineage which considered singing beneath it -- the Rail Band quickly became one of the most popular bands in the country. Sponsored by the Malian railway company, it survived despite increasing competition from other dance halls, discos in the late 70s and the attrition of players to Paris and points European.

There was also some dissent in the ranks: when Mory Kante (a childhood star and a gifted kora player) arrived in the early 70s he would frequently grab the mike and start singing and Keita was affronted. He moved to another band, Kante took over and the musical direction changed a little.

This double disc, with useful liner notes, covers those early years until mid decade and if doesn't have you itching for subsequent volumes . . . well, I guess you aren't listening right.

Terrific.

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