'Kongo Sigui is solid and satisfying....and is one of the best African albums of the...
Jon Lusk 2003-06-25
The Super Rail Band are the latest and hopefully not last in the present line of rehabilitated supergroups from the 'golden age' of West African music. The past year has seen new albums from Senegal's Orchestra Baobab and Guinean veterans Bembeya Jazz, and now this from Mali's most cherished old school orchestra.
The kings of 'Manding swing' since their foundation in 1970, (and featuring talents such as Salif Keita and Mory Kante in their first decade) the Super Rail Band have survived numerous line-up changes, even shedding their entire brass section for this latest effort. But they have never really gone away, even if their available recordings have been few and far between.
Lead guitarist and longest serving member Djelimady Tounkara released his first ever solo album "Sigui" in 2001 to a warm response, reminding fans he was still one of the most distinctive and widely imitated pickers of his generation. That record was an acoustic affair, whereas Tounkara almost always plays electric guitar when fronting the Rail Band. That's true of Kongo Sigui, with the exception of an inspired unplugged "Sory", featuring BallakéSissoko's sparkling kora intertwined with the acoustic guitars of Tounkara and Moussa Diabaté.
In the company of his larger band, Tounkara's occasional tendency to show off is kept on a leash, apart from the slightly overcooked dramatic intro to the otherwise splendidly meditative title track. He's at his finest when commenting on and embellishing the grooves the other musicians get into with his startlingly fluid runs, though there are several quite thrilling moments where he breaks away, as on the climax of "Dakan".
Praise must go to the four-man rhythm section who power the album's mostly mid tempo grooves. And the arrangements and production leave satisfying amounts of space around the musicians. Long term fans won't necessarily miss those horns.
Things are slightly though not significantly let down by the vocals. Backing singers Kady Sylla and Mariam Tounkara aren't quite up to the standard of those on the solo album, and neither of the male lead singers Damory Kouyatéor Samba Sissoko are especially compelling, though both provide a couple of their own songs a-piece.
Kongo Sigui is a solid and satisfying if not spectacular album. But even if it isn't up there with the likes of "New Dimensions in Rail Culture" - the Rail Band's 1981 high water mark, and an all-time classic of world music - it's still one of the best African albums of the year.