Artist Profiles: Djelimady Tounkara

Djelimady Tounkara
Djelimady Tounkara

Djelimady Tounkara’s name has become synonymous with Mali’s legendary Rail Band. He has seen the band through a quarter century of colorful history and constant change.

He was born in 1947 in Kita, Mali. All his adult life, Djelimady has worked to transform his ancestral traditions into dance pop. But at the same time, he has continued to work in more traditional contexts, backing the great jeli singers of Mali on records, in concerts and at the day-long wedding and baptism celebrations that are the modern jeli’s life blood.

A guitarist, Djelimady Tounkara, has been a driving force in Mali’s rich music scene since the early 1960s. The former shepherd and drummer began playing in the local ‘Orchestre’ in Kita, a town in Western Mali renowned for its musical community. He keenly absorbed the influence of Cuban and Congolese music from the radio and spent much of the 1960s building his reputation as a player in the bands Misra Jazz and L’Orchestre Nacional du Mali.

By the early 1970s he was the lead electric guitarist with the legendary Rail Band, backing first Salif Keita and then Mory Kante. They were the top band in Mali until Kante left at the end of that decade. Despite his departure, the group went on to enjoy several hit releases in the ’80s and early ’90s before their popularity dimmed.

It wasn’t until 2002 that Tounkara’s first solo album was released. Sigui showcases his remarkable finger picking skills in the context of an acoustic ensemble. Tounkara reinterprets traditional jeli tunes (songs from caste members responsible for keeping an oral history of the village or tribe) and a number of classic songs from the Rail Band years with the help of nine talented singers and instrumentalists.

His intricate guitar playing is accompanied by percussion, bass, guitar and the scrabbling notes of the ngoni, an instrument considered by many to be West African precursor to the banjo.

In recent years, Djelimady has performed in an acoustic trio called Bajourou, accompanied by another masterful jeli guitarist, Bouba Sacko, and by singer Lafia Diabate, a veteran of the Rail Band. Bajourou released one record titled Big String Theory.

Djelimady Tounkara won the BBC-3 World Music Award for Africa in 2001. Having chosen to stay close to his roots, Tounkara is now bandleader of the Super Rail Band and his style, rhythm and sense of swing has made him one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

In 2001, Djelimady Tounkara released Sigui on Indigo/Label Bleu, an acoustic album showcasing Tounkara’s love for Manding and Bambara traditions.

In 2010, he participated in the Afrocubism project, an album that brought together top musicians from Cuba and Mali. Afrocubism featured Djelimady Tounkara along with legendary Cuban singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa and ngoni master Bassekou. Joining them were Eliades’ Grupo Patria, amongst Cuba’s longest running and most admired bands, kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, legendary Malian griot singer Kasse Mady Diabaté and skilled balafon performer Lassana Diabaté.


Big String Theory (Globe Style/Xenophile, 1993)

Sigui (Indigo/Label Bleu 2580, 2002)

Solon Kono (Marabi 46810, 2006)

Allo Bamako (Oriki Music ORK002, 2007)

Afrocubism (World Circuit, 2010)

Djely Blues (Label Bleu, 2016)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.


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