The Super Rail Band’s bassist broke a string one song in, and everything stopped. After a minute he strolled offstage with the two vocalists, the rhythm guitarist, and the djembe drummer, leaving Djelimady Tounkara up there with the trap and conga players. Hearts sank. Then Tounkara started plucking a familiar figure that evolved into the night’s only full-scale improvisation. When the band returned 10 minutes later, the music was already cresting. Over the next 90 minutes, it would only crest higher.
Sahel music comes voice first, and in the ’70s the Rail Band gave the world two great singers. But the version that made its New York debut at LaGuardia High School July 11—which beyond Tounkara included not a single musician from the 1995-96 edition chronicled in Banning Eyre’s In Griot Time—was about groove. Tounkara stood stage left in a subtle yet resplendent robe-and-pants outfit, at once ancillary and in control, and worked intricately gorgeous riffs I felt I’d heard before (“but not in that order,” a friend emended) into rhythmic patterns that took off like prime live P-Funk, though their shapes were their own. No horns, no female chorus, none of that studio gimcrackery—just Tounkara sounding like two guitarists playing rhythms-that-had-melodies, and everybody but the singers serving and embellishing them. Nor do the records do more than suggest his sound, a riveting thing that adds muscle and metal to that mbiralike twang you can hear as far away as Zimbabwe—sort of like what some bluesmen get from a slide, only . . . not.
Being Malian, the identically blue-robed singers killed when they got the chance. The shorter and older of them was soaring and incanting by the end, and if I’d known which song was up, Eyre’s excellent program notes might have provided a glimmer of what he was worked up about. But it’s just as well I didn’t. The singer—Damory Kouyaté or maybe Samba Sissoko, exactly who isn’t the point—was worked up about the music, and he was serving it. That was the point.
Click here to read Milo Miles’s review of the Super Rail Band’s Mansa.