Listening to this overview of their early years, from 1970 to 1983, it’s amazing how the Rail Band seemed to stand at the crossroads of so much African music from the whole continent. Perhaps it was because they were very much a blue-collar band who had to entertain many different audiences: they were railway employees, based for years at the station hotel in Bamako. On the one hand there are lilting, tropical influences, with audible elements of calypso and Latin mambo: the warm, generous harmonies of the Mory Kanté-led ‘Balakononifing’ are like immersing yourself into a warm sea. But then ‘Dugu Kamaleba’ and ‘Finza’ are both rolling quasi-Afro-beat, with a nod to Fela Kuti in the soulful organ work. ‘Dioula’ has shades of the music of Ethiopia’s golden age, while the later ‘Konowale’ showcases the Congolese influences of the band’s guitar genius Djelimady Tounkara.
The compilation’s title-track is like some lost roots reggae classic, with its irresistible groove, Jamaican-sounding horns and intense guitar playing. The unusual plinks and plonks in the background clearly had an influence on Manu Chao. The Rail Band was an instrumental powerhouse, but it’s also fascinating to hear the contrast between the group’s successive lead vocalists, several of whom would go on to become legends with international careers. So we can compare the tones of the young Salif Keita with the wailing, often androgynous vocals of Mory Kanté, the more piercing-sounding Djelimady Sissoko and the Rail Band’s other vocalist, Magan Ganessy, who has a more conversational and relaxed style of delivery. This is a snapshot of one band but it could almost be the musical map of a country.