A project to chart the history of Mali's possibly greatest band is ambitious, and this double set covering the early years makes for a very satisfying start. Fully named the Rail Band du Buffet Hotel de la Gare
, the Bamako group set up in the hotel by the train station. What's apparent is the very strong Latin influence that pervaded their formative period, evident in the first of three versions on the title cut on here, with Salif Keita
, who was with the group from 1970 to 1975, already fully developed and in superb voice as a singer. Just how things changed is shown in the lengthy 1975 version of "Belle Epoque," with Mory Kante
then the lead singer, with the song taking on a much more African sound (although the Cuban influence is still strong in other material from the period, such as "El Manicero"). The linchpin of the group is probably Djelimady Tounkara
, who'd become lead guitarist, and whose work is inspirational, inventive, and fluid to a remarkable degree -- just listen to "Maliyo," a cut from the late '70s, where his fretwork absolutely shimmers. On the basis of this, the next two volumes will be real treats.