Malian singer Khaira Arby has arrived

Boston Globe, September 12, 2010

It’s pretty much accepted on the world-music circuit that Mali, population 13 million, always boxes above its weight. Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, Habib Koite, Oumou Sangare, Tinariwen, Amadou and Mariam are just some of the global superstars the West African nation has produced. It’s so rich, it’s silly.

But that doesn’t mean that all the great music on offer in Mali has made it to the world stage. Nor does it give Malian artists an automatic ticket to the big time. The wonder of Mali is that it still leaves plenty to discover.

That’s where Khaira Arby comes in. For 20 years she’s sung in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu where she has the following of a hometown heroine. Her cassette-only recordings have circulated only in the region. Though a protegee of Farka Toure and a virtuoso singer – in four languages! – backed by the muscled grooves of an elite band, she’s barely toured outside her home country.

Until now.

For several weeks, Arby and the band have camped out in a Harlem apartment that is serving as New York base for their first US tour. Club dates in Harlem and Brooklyn have turned into ecstatic dance parties. Now they are hitting the road for a tour that concludes Oct. 6 at Johnny D’s in Somerville.

An independent CD, “Timbuktu Tarab,” came out last month, with support from an American backer and fan, Christopher Nolan; the digital version is out next week.

For Arby, performing in the United States represents the ultimate vindication.

“I dreamed of coming here for the last 20 years, even more,” she says. “Now I finally have the feeling that I’ve succeeded.”

She says this, in French, while seated in Nolan’s Jeep, just before hitting the stage at Brooklyn club Zebulon. She wears a luxurious orange ensemble and ornate headgear bedecked with shiny circles of silver.

“I won my bet,” she says. And it wasn’t easy. Because she does not come from the griot caste, Arby wasn’t supposed to sing, let alone in public. Her father married her off at 17 to prevent her from following her muse.

“I accepted it, it was my destiny,” she says. “I married and had children. But then I divorced and came back to Timbuktu, and in my section of the city they made me arts commissioner.”

One day, local politics prevented the female soloist of a local ensemble from taking part in a concert. Arby stepped in, and a career was reborn. Farka Toure – a relative by marriage – had her guest on several of his songs. He helped finance equipment for her band. And the annual Festival in the Desert, held outside Timbuktu, brought this local cult figure to the attention of those making the journey.

All along, Arby has made music that blends her compositions with traditional songs in Arabic, Tamashek (the Tuareg language), Bambara (Mali’s national language), and Sonrhai (the language of her region). She is fluent in them all, plus French.

“Timbuktu is multicultural,” she says. The tongues and rhythms come from centuries of caravan trade, herding, mining, the colonial era and the modern state. With electric guitar, hand percussions and the string instrument ngoni, Arby’s sound reflects the mix. It’s joyous and rough, more danceable than the “desert blues,” less stubbornly trancey than Tinariwen.

Arby’s current band is a family affair. “The bassist is my cousin, the drummer is my nephew, one backup singer is my big sister’s daughter,” she says. The young, gifted guitarist is the son of her previous guitarist who went on to play with Oumou Sangare.

That family feeling and sheer sense of joy at their American adventure have been palpable at their shows, where Arby sings almost in the crowd and musicians happily dance with audience members, immediately erasing the language barrier.

“I like it when people understand what I say, but through my gestures and the melody in my voice, they can appreciate it,” Arby says. “When I see them crying with joy at the music, I cry with them.”