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From the Motherland 

Getting on track with Mali's Super Rail Band

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
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Bamba Dembele could have kept yakking for hours. As he gorged himself on chicken and potatoes at the KooKooRoo across from downtown‘s California Plaza, the burly manager, MC and djembe whacker for the Super Rail Band complained about music piracy in Mali and the predicament of his country’s music industry. He even related a bit of the history of the band he‘d been in for a dozen years. Opposite him sat Christian Mousset, head of the French labels Indigo and Label Bleu, who has been largely responsible for the resurgence of the Rail Band’s career. The Frenchman piped in periodically, sometimes disagreeing with his running mate, occasionally switching to passable English when he thought I didn‘t understand his French.

But the man I had spent weeks preparing to interview was not talking with his mouth full of herbed bird about the pathetic recording studios back home. Nor was he nodding in agreement with his colleagues’ expansive praise of the ”richness of the Malian musical soil“ and gruff gripes of how ”people don‘t understand that it’s not only the griots who make music in Mali.“ Nor did he add to his manager‘s recollections of the late ’80s, when the Rail Band almost disintegrated, or recount their experiences in Trio Manding before returning to Bamako to kick-start the Rail Band in the early ‘90s.

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No, Djelimady Tounkara wasn’t even at the table. Seems that Mali‘s guitar slinger extraordinaire, the creative juice squeezer of the aptly named Rail Band almost since its beginnings at the Buffet Hotel next to Bamako’s railway station, had blown off our appointment. Was the bandleader ill? I asked Bamba. ”No.“ Tired, perhaps? ”Yes, that‘s it,“ he replied curtly in his husky West African--accented French.

The band’s Grand Performances set later that evening didn‘t wash away my disappointment, but at least I finally heard what has made the Rail Band sound so special since its birth in 1969. The group’s electrification of Manding and other Malian traditional song was as revolutionary in its day as the post-independence politics of that country‘s government. Hair-raising tenor voices rang out over PA systems, guitars channeled the ancient runs of the kora and balafon through the vacuum tubes of knockoff Fender amps, hand percussion and drum kits furrowed deep Sahelian grooves, and dance floors filled with a generation energized on the endless possibilities of the new.

The 1970s were the best of times for the Rail Band and their rivals on the Bamako scene, Les Ambassadeurs, both groups thriving on a combination of government sponsors and public adoration. They forged a uniquely Malian sound akin to the rumbles of new authenticity originating elsewhere on the continent in bands like Franco’s OK Jazz in Zaire, Bembeya Jazz in Guinea, and the Star Band in Senegal, a Dakar-based group that made a big impact on Djelimady in the years before he settled in with the Rail Band. A reissued Rail Band collection from that era, Rail Band: Mory Kante & Salif Keita (Sono Africa-France), unearths time-capsule morsels such as a brooding arrangement of ”Soundiata,“ the griot chestnut recounting the heroics of the famous 13th-century warrior-king of the Malian Empire.

Many combos served as musicians‘ training grounds during that luminous age of African pop, and the Rail Band was no exception, with such big throats as Salif Keita and Mory Kante passing through before moving on up to the international stage. Like their counterparts throughout the continent, the group hasn’t enjoyed an uninterrupted, smooth run of success, either. There have been personnel squabbles and factions splintering off, such as the Abidjan-based Rail Band International that Djelimady and Mory formed briefly in the late ‘70s after a coup d’etat forced them to flee their homeland. Crowds dwindled in the ‘80s and early ’90s, as tastes changed and their fan base was aging and dying off. The petty management pressures of performing at the Buffet Hotel, along with Mali‘s grinding poverty, contributed to a cycle of vastly diminishing returns, sapping the group’s artistic creativity.

Surprisingly, the man whose clear-toned intensity has fired up the Rail Band locomotive all these years has not received much acclaim until recently. ”All the people who passed through the band before Djelimady -- Salif, Mory -- they got exposure, but he who truly created the music did not,“ explains Mousset. ”You see, in Africa it‘s the singers people talk about, and they pay less attention to the music.“

Since the mid-’90s the band have established themselves on the European circuit. Back home in Bamako, they severed their ties with the railway hotel -- a stress-relieving move that Bamba claims has allowed Djelimady‘s playing to ”really break out and explode.“ Super Rail hold court most weekends at the hip Djembe club, drawing a new, younger crowd in addition to those more long in the tooth who seek the fleeting nostalgic moment. ”Although the band is sometimes perceived as playing for the older people, the youth are also finding something inside the music now,“ says Mousset.

After touring North America extensively for the first time, 2001 was Super Rail’s breakout year in the States. They wowed the Louisiana festivals in the spring and returned for a more extensive set of dates in the summer. ”We‘ve had a great time,“ Bamba said of their U.S. shows. ”It’s really been like a family party.“ Their two European studio releases, 1992‘s Super Rail Band de Bamako and the modern Afro-classic Mansa (1995), previously available only as hard-to-find imports, have been released domestically by Harmonia Mundi. Djelimady’s first acoustic outing, Sigui, came out stateside a few months ago. Mousset calls the album ”Djelimady‘s sentimental journey,“ a warm, deeply personal walk down a dusty Malian memory lane, reminiscent of the guitarist’s jam sessions at his home in the Lafiabougou district of Bamako.

The eight-piece touring version of Super Rail jettisoned the horns and keyboards heard prominently on the two albums, with electric guitars, vocals and percussion providing all the locomotion. This instrumental streamlining meant more space for Djelimady‘s mind-altering string work, giving guitar worshippers more chances to hear those hyperaccelerated arpeggios, subtly reverbed one- and two-note clusters, and uncanny griot-swing choogle. Feverish yet restrained, Djelimady’s rippling fretboard runs reflect his maturity but also the confidence of someone in total control of his instrument who doesn‘t need to showboat or put flash ahead of soul.

”One thing I like about Djelimady, I find he has a pretty generous side,“ says Mousset. ”When you see him working in Bamako, he lets the younger ones play. He doesn’t want to put himself in front. It‘s sometimes a little frustrating, because you go out to see him one evening, he’s there, he listens to his people, he plays a little, then he doesn‘t play. But now with the Rail Band, he is out front, he has a great time. And when he’s there [onstage], he‘s really giving all he knows how to give.“

When I finally met Djelimady backstage after the concert, I told him I was sorry he couldn’t make the interview, politely refraining from sharing what I really felt. He smiled, looked me in the eye, and said in his rolling French, ”Everything that I wanted to say, he can say,“ nodding toward Bamba. He added that ”He also speaks blah-blah,“ a not-so-subtle dig at his pal‘s propensity for self-promotion and chattiness. Trying to grab a few usable nuggets, I commented on the immaculate tone he gets with his deep-red Les Paul guitar. He smiled broadly. ”Yes, a clear and pure sound -- I like that.“

Djelimady signed a couple of my CD booklets with a squiggly, unreadable autograph, and I introduced him to my family. That was the end of our visit -- a two-minute ”interview.“ He went back to schmoozing with a small contingent of expatriate Malians. ”We are so proud of him! It’s Malian pride,“ exclaimed one tall, regally dressed woman. I wished I felt similarly elated, but my frustration at a missed opportunity still simmered. At least Djelimady‘s guitar had kept its promise that day, confiding bittersweet truths entwined in his infinite spiral of riffs.

Super Rail Band play at the Conga Room, Friday, July 26; and with Amadou and Mariam as part of Grand Performances at the California Plaza, downtown, Saturday, July 27 (free admission).

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