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Souareba - Salif Keita

Mory Kanté started out in the "Super Rail Band of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, Bamako", shortened to the Rail Band for all practical purposes. The Rail Band was set up in 1970 by the Malian government and the Malian railway services as part of an initiative to preserve local customs and traditions but also to use them to attract the very tourist industry that was threatening to destroy them. And they regarded it as an "investment" - "not funding". It always amazes me why western governments call support for the arts "funding" but make far larger handouts to businesses like arms manufacturers as "investment", especially in places like the UK where creative industries, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, was the fastest and largest expanding sector of the national economy.

The lead singer in the Rail Band was Salif Keita, a member of the Malian royal family, who had been ostracised by his family because he was an albino. Keita destroyed any last hope of being re-accepted by his father when he took up singing, traditionally the role of griots (see last post) but definitely not the kind of thing that the much higher caste of princes should indulge in.

After much local success with the Rail Band and his next group "Les Ambassadeurs", in 1984 Keita, like Kanté in the same year, moved to Paris to gain access to better recording facilities and to reach a more international audience. Looking at them both now, such a long way from performing at the station hotel in Bamako, one cannot help but admire the wisdom of Mali's civil servants.

Souareba is a girl's name meaning someone who is both courageous and sensual and is a track from his second and breakthrough album of 1987, "Soro", which was given to me in the early nineties by Islington arts friend Trevor Mbatha. This track always stood out for the poignant counterpoint between Keita's soulful vocal and the haunting theme first introduced by the female backing singers who I imagine standing half shrouded by morning mists on the shore of a warm lake, the water glistening and calm. The song combines passion with peacefulness and has always been a balm in troubled times.

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