Rail Band – Soundiata: Belle Epoque Volume 1 (2007)

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Rail Band
‘Soundiata’
Belle Epoque Volume 1
2007 Sterns Music (STCD 3033-34)

CD1
01 Soundiata (L’Exil) Feat. Mory 27:50
02 Maliyo Feat. Lanfia Diabate 06:40
03 Sunjata Feat. Salif Keita 14:50
04 Armee Mali 04:22

CD2
01 Duga (Bambara Version) Feat. M 08:00
02 Mali Cebalenw Feat. Salif Keit 06:35
03 Armee Malienne Feat. Mory Kant 04:23
04 Fankante Dankele Feat. Magan G 07:02
05 Armee Mali Feat. Tatine Dembel 04:53
06 Soundjata (New Version) 10:29
07 Mali Tebaga Mogoma 05:54

This is the first of three volumes that Sterns Music has devoted to the discography of the Rail Band, also known as The Super Rail Band, Orchestre Rail-Band du Bamako, Rail Band du Mali, and on occasion, the West African Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is a lot of music, but even if you have never listened to the Rail Band, this is not a bad place to start. Being the band that launched the careers of both Salif Keita and Mory Kanté, three double-disc anthologies is not excessive at all. As of this writing I only have the first two but they are both treasured items of my musical stash.

The centerpiece of this set is the opening track from which it takes its name, ‘Soundiata’ (also spelt Sondiata). The song is epic – not only in its length of 27 minutes, but in that its content is straight from Malian griout oral folk epics dealing with the founding dynasty of the thirteenth-century Mandingo empire. Its relaxed pace, gorgeous horn arrangements, hypnotic organ chords, and complex bass and percussion immediately grab the attention. In fact the adjectives “relaxed”, “gorgeous,” “hynotic,” and “complex” come to mind so often while listening to this collection that you can just imagine that I’ve written three or four entire paragraphs egregiously overusing them. Done imaging that? Ok, great. Also noteworthy is the fact that there is dialogic banter going on between singer Kanté and one of the band members across the 27 minutes of ‘Soundiata’ that I can’t understand a word of, and is no doubt important in some way. Except for the more uptempo ‘B’ section that happens a few times, the groove remains essentially unchanged until about 17 minutes in when they start to rock it out like an equatorial Yes and take the piece through several time signature and tempo changes. The song is captivating for the enthusiast of African music but its length is apt to lose a few casual listeners, coming as it does right at the beginning of the disc. It should also be noted that the second CD contains the confusingly-titled “New Version” of the same song. Having actually been recorded 3 years earlier, I am not sure what Stern’s Music intends by this, unless the title suffers from an overly literal translation of the French “nouvelle”, and what is meant to be expressed is that this is an ‘updated’ or ‘modern’ version of an old folk song. Both versions are influenced by the Afro-Cuban and merengue sounds popular in West Africa at the time, and even though the ‘new version’ (1972) is essentially sans drums, the opening introduction is heavily Latin. With all the great blogs from people who are actually knowledgeable about African Music (Comb&Razor, Omogod, Awesome Tapes..) rather than just dabble in it like I do, I should probably keep my speculation to a minimum.

There are a few other peculiarities that seem out of step of Stern’s usual high standards, including some rough sound quality even by African crate-digger criteria, and a blatant absence of the discography details that is the bread-and-butter of their ‘target market.’ The liner notes do a decent job of telling the story of the band, underwritten by the National Railways of Mali who needed a house band for their booming hotel, but they are not of the same quality as many of the other Sterns releases and at least 2 out of the 3 volumes use the same, brief text that attempts to cover twenty years of musical history in a couple of pages. I am always uncomfortable writing about music whose lyrics I don’t understand a word of, and feel that I should put a large neon disclaimer on all such things, but it would seem that Sterns also does not place much emphasis on lyrical content with the Rail Band. Aside from epic folkloric poetry, the rest of the tracks seem centered on the usual preoccupations of most post-colonial governments’ official discourse: praising the army, praising the workers, praising progress, praising democracy, praising the army again. The question of how much or how little control the band had over its lyrical content is something that is either willfully ignored or just considered unimportant by the people who put together this collection. In any event we should not expect any blistering social critiques from a band with a national/corporate sponsor, and allow ourselves to be content with the abundant pleasures of the music itself and its innovations. Which occasionally included FOUR guitarists. That’s right, FOUR. Another oddity is the inclusion of one sole track from the 1980s (which would seem to belong on Volume 3), however it manages to fit comfortably with the rest of the tracks reasonably well.

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Lineups during the period of these recordings included the following musicians.
(1970-1972)

Trumpet, tenor and alto sax – Tidiani Koné
Vocals – Salif Keita
TImbales – Marius
Percussion – Abdouramane Koumaré
Guitars – Nabé Baba, Ousmane Sogodogo, Mamoutou Diakité

(1972-1976)

Vocals – Mory Kanté, Magan Ganessy, Djelimady Sissoko
Balafon – Mory Kanté
Drums – Pacheco
Bongos – Korobala
Percussion – Moussa Traoré, Abdouramane Koumaré
Trumpet – Sourakata Cissé
Tenor and alto sax – Tidiani Koné
Guitars – Djeliady Tounkara, Chiek Traoré, Mamoutou Diakité, Ousmane Sogodogo

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