For my money, Super Biton was the best of the Malian big bands, and Belle Epoque reflects their prowess. This rerelease of some of their best might sound better with the plush effects available in modern studios, but the sound is still incredibly full and rich, and it stands the test of time. Skip over the first tune to "Malamini," and float away on the smooth interlocking guitar lines; let the horns lull you into rhythmic swaying; halfway into the guitar solo you'll notice that the vocals have stopped and you're hearing a remarkable jam. Super Biton captures the cosmopolitan charm of the West African big bands perfectly, and reflects that moment when Western musical models were giving way to local styles. The rhythm is provided mainly from the kit; the instruments are not traditional, but the sound is strictly based in the Bamanan (Bambara) tradition of Super Biton's hometown, Segou.
Listen to the creepy disco keyboards that introduce "Taasidoni," followed by the sharp horns, the muffled drums and staccato guitar. Lead vocals duel with saxophone lines and then a brilliantly subtle guitar solo. Later the horns punch to the fore in a half minute flurry, announcing the end of the dance. The format of the songs may be formulaic, but it is executed to perfection. Instrumentals are this band's bread and butter; they never produced a internationally famous solo singer like the Rail Band or Les Ambassadeurs, and so never achieved the same acclaim.
Belle Epoque's fifty six minutes aren't quite as riveting as the now out-of-print Afro-Jazz du Mali, but that reflects in part a poor choice of openers. While not inherently a bad song, "Nyelini" starts off a bit harsh, with an ear full of organ and brass; add in some strained lead vocals and you get something that doesn't sit in the same groove as the rest of the album. The second half of this nine-minute song is more consistent with the rest, though, with a fine sax solo showing the group's jazz influences.
It would be nice to know the recording dates and info for the songs, and who some of the main players might be, but the thin liner notes offer nothing. The artists should get credit where it is due, especially on a great album from a classic band. - Craig Tower
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