The Rail Band was founded in 1970, in Mali, with the sponsorship of the railway administration and the Ministry of Information. The National Railway Company secured a permanent venue at the Buffet Bar in the Station Hotel in Bamako. The band was formed with the hope of safeguarding and developing Malian music. The general idea was that weary travelers would tumble into the Buffet Bar where the Rail Band would perform real Manding music. Singing in Bambara, a Manding language spoken not only in Mali, but also in Guinea, the Gambia, and parts of Senegal, the band adopted traditional kora and balafon songs and rhythms mixing in an Islamic-influenced vocal style to what was becoming modern urban pop music.
Salif Keita began singing lead for the Rail Band at it's inception, when he was only twenty-one. Instruments and equipment were government-owned and band members were considered government employees. The Rail Band quickly became a sort of rite-of-passage for Malian musical talent. As mentioned, Salif Keita got his start with them, as did guitarist Kante Manfila (who both soon left the Rail Band to start Les Ambassadeurs), and singer Mory Kante (who assumed lead vocal responsibilities after Keita left).
The Rail Band's music was Manding-influenced, latin-tinged, with with lightness and swing, and despite the modern instruments you can clearly hear the strains of the original Manding music. The idea of the original Rail Band stills survives to this day, though they now compete with disco's and video clubs and as a result they started playing only once a week.