For more than three decades the Super Rail Band has literally electrified the traditional Mande music of Mali, adapting music made for the kora for an almost orchestral dance band. Founded in 1971 as the Rail Band du Buffet Hotel de la Gare, it was for years a fixture at a hotel next to the Bamako train station, and, along with fellow electric pioneers Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, blazed a trail for the many subsequent stars who’ve fused traditional material with Western elements–in fact, two of the country’s greatest crossover singers, Salif Keita and Mory Kante, were in the band in the 70s. These days the group is led by longtime guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and on its most recent recording, Mansa (Indigo), its slick, brass-punctuated grooves incorporate all sorts of international flavors, from lilting Latin rhythms to the melancholy drone of Indian classical music. But the songs still revolve around Tounkara’s sweet, fluid guitar and the soulful harmony singing of Samba Sissoko and Damory Kouyate. The band recorded the album back in 1995, and in subsequent years, according to writer Banning Eyre, locals started to treat it as a nostalgia act. So Tounkara recently revamped the lineup, ditching all the horns and keyboards for a more visceral sound. Incredibly, the group is on its first-ever American tour. Friday, July 13, 7:30 PM, Chicago Summerdance, Spirit of Music Garden, Grant Park, Michigan between Harrison and Balbo; 312-742-4007. Saturday, July 14, 4:30 PM, Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, Welles Park, 2333 W. Sunnyside; 773-728-6000.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ellis Vener.