Rail Band ‘Belle Epoque vol. 3. Dioba’ 2CD (Sterns) 5/5

Once more Sterns come up trumps with a sumptuously packaged 2 CD set from the legendary Rail Band that covers three distinct periods of the group’s existence between 1970 and 1983. The rarity of the original vinyl releases on these previously unreleased recordings on CD in Europe makes this an essential item for afficionados of the classic era in modern West African music. The first period is notable for the inclusion of a relatively unknown lead vocalist who proves to be a revelation. It is the impassioned vocals of Magan Ganessy that are the icing on the cake of a superb song, ‘Kibaru’ from 1974 which, with its guitar riffs, incessant percussion and stabbing horns is in some ways a precursor to the epic ‘Mandjou’ sung by Salif Keita while fronting the band. Ganessy impresses also on the wonderful ‘Djamban’ which is a beautiful uplifting tune that again features heavyweight percussion. In contrast, the second period of the mid-late 1970s is 
characterised by a highly melodic accompaniment as illustrated on the lilting mid-tempo ‘Tidiane Kone’ from 1977 featuring the vocals of Djelimady Sissoko, and in a more uptempo vein by the tribute to both Afrobeat and Fela on ‘Sinsimba’ with Mory Kante taking on vocal duties. By the third period of the early 1980s, however, the Rail Band’s sound had become more polished, recording facilites had improved and yet there is still a distinctive feel even when synthesizers make their entrance and the brass is less prominent. This is exemplified by the song ‘Diabate’ from 1982. The songs as a whole constitute a vital part of the Rail Band’s repertoire and are an African equivalent by Sterns to the substantial and seemingly tireless documental work that the Smithsonian Institute has carried out and continues to do so for American folk music. As ever detailed bilingual notes accompany proceedings (with beautiful graphics of album covers and original photos), in this case from the expert pen of French musicologist Helene Lee who has written extensively on West African music.

Tim Stenhouse