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African Legends

Super Rail Band

By Bruce Miller
Published November 6, 2006

Originally calling themselves the Rail Band, Super Rail Band became Mali’s premier dance band, rooting their music in kora-like guitar-driven grooves.

Following the suggestion of Guinea’s President Sekou Troare, Mali and its leader, the corrupt Col. Moussa Traore, decided during the late 1950s and ’60s to encourage arts dedicated to its country’s roots. Festivals were organized and bands were encouraged to play at least a few tunes based solely on local rhythms. (Just a decade before, Mali’s larger ensembles were so heavily Cuban-influenced they made some of the Congo’s pop music of the time sound positively homegrown.)

One musician, n’goni (a type of one-string fiddle) wizard Tidane Kone, decided in 1970 to form a Mande roots-based band that ultimately launched the careers of Salif Keita and Mory Kante. Calling themselves the Rail Band, named in honor of the fact that they were the buffet band at Bamako’s train station hotel, they, alongside Les Ambassadeurs, became Mali’s premier dance band, rooting their music in kora-like guitar-driven grooves.

Meanwhile Col. Troare pitted them against Les Ambassadeurs at literacy campaign festivals, a bill that led to healthy musical rivalry and the eventual defection of Keita to the latter-mentioned band. By the ’80s, they’d added “Super” to their moniker and began spending more time in Abidjan, where many of their subsequent LPs were recorded. While the hotel audiences finally began to dwindle, the Super Rail Band survived hard times in the late ’80s and ’90s and currently continues on as Mali’s hottest dance ensemble. Their very endurance has earned them the reputation as perhaps one of the most important and influential bands to come out of West Africa.

Recommended Recordings

Super Rail Band de Bamako (Indigo)
Mansa (Indigo)
New Dimensions In Rail Culture (Globestyle)