One of the true legends of African music in the 1970s and the 1980s was the Rail Band from Mali. Not only were they a great band, but two of the members went on to successful solo careers. Original Rail Band singer Salif Keita, a legend in his own right, has been called “one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century” by many reviewers. Yes, he’s that special. After Keita left the band in 1972, Mory Kante replaced him as singer, and he was no slouch either. Kante also left the band for a solo career and had a string of popular singles, including a huge hit in the dance clubs in the 1987 with the infectious “Yeke Yeke.” The Rail Band continues to this day, only now they are called the Super Rail Band, and are led by Djelimady Tounkara, widely recognized as one of the greatest living guitarists on the continent.
The Sterns Music label has recently released three sets of vintage Rail Band recordings, the “Belle Epoque” series, covering the years 1970-1983, each of them 2-CD packages. I’ve got the first two volumes and I’m very pleased with what I hear on these discs. The music bubbles, floats, and flows. Plenty of scratchy guitars, lively horns, timbales, bongos, and percussion, all of it augmented by those sweet vocals. There’s just that certain sound, that joyous lilt, that so many African recordings from this era have (some of the music by Tabu Ley Rochereau springs to mind as a comparison) that I find totally irresistible. I could listen to this music for hours on end. I think it’s now time for me to splurge on the third volume.
The Rail Band songs all resonate with an upbeat, carefree vibe that never fails to put me in a great mood. But I also love the succinct, clever descriptions and explanations about each song that are included in the informative booklet that comes with the CDs. Here are a few examples:
“I am feeling happy. Today is the day when we shall dance, when I shall take you in my arms”
“Good looks and sweet mouth: here comes the city’s Casanova”
“Let harmony and peace reign among us”
“A sacred dance of the Bambaras, danced only by kings, chiefs, and generals”
“Soninke merchants display courage and honesty wherever they go.”
“People who sow discord among couples, beware!”
“Courageous men and women of Mali, let us work hand in hand for the progress of our country.”
“The vulture, which eats away dead warriors after Tira Makan’s battles. This song is reputed to bring bad luck to anyone singing it.”
“A tribute to Mamadou Boutiqui, a generous merchant who gave his last cent to the griots.”
Well, now you know; these aren’t your typical silly love songs! But this is certainly fabulous, timeless music.