Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Aug 17th 2010 1:30PM by Steve Hochman
"I think America is the center of the world and I want to sing to other people to follow the example of America, a great example of solidarity and helpfulness," she says, speaking in French from her Timbuktu home via translator Marie Louise.
It's quite a contrasting view to that we have here of late, of a politically and culturally polarized multiverse of cable TV shouting heads and blogged flame wars.
But Arby, in her concerts here, is singing her brand-new song 'Yesterday's America, Today's America, Tomorrow's America' in honor of what to her is a shining beacon of unity and possibility.
Perhaps that's the result of a long journey of struggle with oppression and cultural/ethnic divisions at home before she got to make this journey. As a girl, she was forbidden by her father from pursuing music. Defying that edict, she had to fight fear and superstition against women to establish herself as a Malian star and only now, more than two decades later, has made her first international album – the new 'Timbuktu Tarab' – and her first journey to the US.
But for her that's no less than the fulfillment of a mission.
"My voice is a gift from God," she says.
And she does not take that gift lightly. On the song 'Khaira,' from the new album, she addresses Allah with that forceful voice, singing in the Sonrhai dialect, "I am your servant and my job is to spread joy around the world with my songs. I am proud to be your servant of happiness."
Khaira Arby, 'Khaira'
It would seem that Arby doesn't want anyone to take that lightly, either. A lot of the sounds coming from the West African Sahara lately have been trance music. 'Timbuktu Tarab' is wake-up music. Make that WAKE-UP music!
Like Saharan stars Tinariwen and such young rising acts as Etran Finatawa – covered in a recent Around the World – Arby comes from the nomad traditions. Her mother is of the Tuareg tribe, like the Tinariwen musicians, and half of Etran Finatawa. But even compared to the former's music drawn from its origins in armed rebellion, Arby's songs are pointed and edgy; no relaxing grooves about it. The electric guitar slices and slashes. The scratchy fiddle digs into the ears. The ngoni pierces and punctuates the rhythms. The drums would stand out even in a rock band. Nothing burbles. Nothing percolates. Nothing "grooves." Nothing's laid-back. And certainly not the centerpiece of the sound: Arby's grippingly powerful, from-the-gut singing.
She sings in four different languages on the album – Malian dialects Sonrhai, Tamashek and Bambara, plus Arabic (her father is an Arabic Berber). She sings praise to Allah, to historic figures of her culture, to her Tarab homeland and the Tamashek people, to workers returning from grueling labor in the salt mines. Perhaps most notabe, for 20 years she's used that voice to sing about issues facing women in her culture. The new album's song 'Feriene' takes on the continued practice of female genital mutilation.
Khaira Arby, 'Feriene'
If her voice didn't set her apart from the start, this has.
"In the beginning, I had problems because I was a woman singing," she says. "But after a few albums, when I became a celebrity, I didn't have much problems. A lot of women singing in my country have problems because they are married and have to have the approval of their husbands to do concerts or go outside of Mali. And in the past in Mali, there's been a lot of violence against women, so that's why I always sing about women."
Her impact in that regard has been startling.
"I have no critics of my songs now," she says. "On the contrary, there are a lot of men who congratulate me and I get a lot of congratulations from everybody because I am on the right side. Even if someone says a bad thing, I don't care because I know I am on the right side."
Singing – about anything – was not something that would have figured to be the central part of Arby's life. She was not raised in a musical family.
"But I always had my voice," she says.
That voice did bring her an early mentor, no less than Ali Farka Touré, perhaps the most famous Malian musician worldwide, who married into her Arby's family when she was a child.
"When I met him the first time, he said I had a terrific voice," she says. "I grew up with him and started learning music with him when I was a little child. He was the only person who was a musician in my environment. I learned a lot from him. He was a great artist."
Despite the family and cultural strictures against her pursuit, she slowly built her renown, eventually gaining a little notice outside of Mali after performances at the Festival of the Desert in the early 2000s got her bookings for several European dates in 2005. Of late she's also had opportunities to collaborate with American guitarist Markus James and the New York band Sway Machinery, both of whom have visited Mali. Now she's fully following the late Touré's footsteps in her mission to spread her joy and message globally.
"I'm really proud," she says. "This is an open door for me. I always dreamed of this and now it's becoming true. I invite everyone, all the Americans, to come to my concerts and discover my music and the voice of Africa. I love America and will sing for the American people."