The Rail Band: Belle Epoque Vol. 3 - Dioba

Chris May By

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Rail Band

Belle Epoque Vol. 3 - Dioba

Sterns Africa


With Belle Epoque Vol. 3 - Dioba, the estimable Sterns Africa label has completed another definitive archive project documenting West Africa's post-colonial "belle epoque" of the 1960s and 1970s. The three two-disc volumes in the series present the hits, highlights and lesser known treasures made by the Rail Band, the era's pre-eminent Malian modern-roots band—which featured world music stars-to-be Salif Keita and Mory Kante, both winningly represented—in a collection that is both as scholarly and as vibrant as the label's The Syliphone Years series, showcasing the contemporaneous bands of neighbouring Guinea.

The "belle epoque" found West African musicians celebrating their cultural legacies with a confidence born of independence from colonial rule, and placing those legacies in contexts which combined traditional song forms, rhythms and instrumentation—notably koras, balafons, drums and percussion—with electric guitars, saxophones and brass introduced during the colonial era. The bands gave voice to the increasingly urbanised African societies from which they emerged, keen to preserve and refashion their heritages for modern times: the Rail Band called what they played "Mandingo classicism" or "modern folklore."

Crucially, the "belle epoque" pre-dated the emergence of the world music movement, which created new markets for bands but which, inevitably, also led to aesthetic compromises, by no means all of them well-judged or enduring. The music of the "belle epoque" era was an explosion of creativity unfettered by market considerations beyond the purely local.

The Rail Band has much in common with Senegal's more widely known Orchestra Baobab. Both bands were formed around 1970 and in their original incarnations were active until the mid 1980s, exploring similar, modern-roots terrains. But while the "belle epoque" Rail Band, particularly in the years when Keita was its lead vocalist, was at home with the stately and spacious, rolling savannah rhythms which typified Baobab's output, much of their music was wilder, more urgent, raw and intense, and included Malian spins on Nigerian Afrobeat and Congolese rumba. This rainbow of sounds was magnified by the differing styles of the band's chief songwriters and vocalists—Salif Keita from 1970-72, followed by Mory Kante and Magan Ganessy, who were featured alongside each other during the mid 1970s—each of whom brought his own, singular, ethnic folklore tradition with him.

Like its predecessors Belle Epoque Vol. 1 - Soundiata (Sterns, 2007) and Belle Epoque Vol. 2 - Mansa (Sterns, 2008), Dioba presents a selection of tracks recorded by the Rail Band between 1970 and 1983. Two are from the Keita years, most are from the mid 1970s, with Kante featured on six tracks and Ganessy on five. An entrancing thread running through all the tracks recorded from 1972 onwards is lead guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, a brilliantly imaginative player whose style incorporates cascading, kora-like, single-note runs, jazzy chorded passages and laid back savannah rock, all of it fed through an echo chamber variously set between five and 11. Tounkara has the transporting lyricism of Baobab's lead guitarist, Barthelemy Attisso, but places it on a broader stylistic canvas.

Dioba showcases the Rail Band in all its splendid moods and colours: from Keita's spiritualised and virtuosic "Maki" and "Soyomba," through Ganessy's fierce going on feral "Kadia Kandian" and "Djamban," the re-Africanised Stax-Volt soul of Kante's "Mariba Yassa" and his mesmeric take on Afrobeat, "Sinsimba," spacier and nimbler than originator Fela Kuti's style, on to the rumba-infused "Foliba" and "Talassa." Two 1982 tracks, "Diby" and "Diabate," feature the psychedelicised keyboards of Alfred Coulibaly, a late but valuable addition to the line-up, inhabiting adjacent territory to that being explored by the American keyboard player Marco Benevento on Me Not Me (The Royal Potato Family, 2009), two and a half decades later.

Such sumptuous diversity makes it hard to stereotype the Rail Band, which creates an artistic bonus but a marketing challenge. Partly as a consequence, their cousins Orchestra Baobab have to date made the bigger impact, both with their heritage recordings and as a reformed band on the international festival and concert circuit. Anyone who loves Baobab, but who has yet to discover the Rail Band, should do themselves a favour and check Mali's "belle epoque" finest out. A feast of magnificent music awaits you.

Tracks: CD1: Bedianomogo; Sinsimba; Kadia Kandian; Wale Numa Lombaliya; Diby; Maki; Djamban; Mady Guindo; Den Nadiya. CD2: Kibaru; Mariba Yassa; Dioba; Tidiane Kone; Diabate; Foliba; Soyomba; Karitea; Jurukan; Talassa.

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