Malian singer Khaira Arby wows Toronto fans with her jazzy Saharan sound
11 May 2012 No Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
With a regal presence on stage that belies her diminutive stature, Malian singer Khaira Arby wowed the crowd at Lula Lounge in Torontop on May 8 with a long set of her own brand of jazzy Saharan music. Because of the troubles that have engulfed her native country since the coup earlier this year, there was some doubt that her North American spring tour would even get off the ground, but as presenter Alan Davis noted in his introduction, if there was ever a time for her to spread her positive message to the rest of the world, that would be now.
Her brand of music is mesmerizing, with its hypnotic layering of rhythms and melodies over a heavy bass line. It often sounded like there were more melodies and rhythms going than what was being created by the five musicians on stage, which included two stellar guitarists who traded off lead guitar.
Arby’s music is both traditional and modern — imagine rock guitar riffs and bluesy melodies over churning, time-honoured West African polyrhythms, and throw in a dash of funk for good measure. Her young band is super tight with a flair for showmanship that makes their virtuosic playing look easy. Her voice is as strong and compelling as her stage persona.
Underneath all that great music are the lyrics that have often had a great impact socially in Mali. Women’s issues are often at the forefront of Arby’s music, including a song where she speaks out against female circumcision. In the song Waidio, she dares to assert a women’s right to pursue her own happiness — a radical view in her very traditional society.
Arby has become an inspiration and a role model for Malian women. In a country where women don’t enjoy the kind of autonomy that they do here in North America, she divorced her first husband when his controlling nature interfered with her musical career. This is something virtually unheard of with women of her generation. She paved the way for others to follow, and modernized the role of the female praise singer as much as she’s modernized the music itself.
Hailing from a village not far from fabled Timbuktu, Khaira sings in the languages of the Malian desert, including Songhai, Tamashek and Arabic. While she’s been a star in her native country for decades, her first international release (Timbuktu Tarab) came out in 2010. Her current tour continues in the U.S. through May.