It's her voice that always stuns first-time listeners. High-pitched yet mellifluous, it wails and swoons from note to note, arriving each time with an exclamation point that keeps a song on course until it ends with another musical punctuation. Janis Joplin had a similar kind of musical charisma -- more intense than Arby's but in the same general ballpark. Where Joplin is the embodiment of '60s rock 'n' roll, Arby is the face of modern West African music -- music that's rooted in traditions of the continent but also recognizes its connections with the West. Electric guitars are big in Arby's musical universe. So is the pentatonic scale that entered into blues music via slaves from Arby's native Mali and other West African countries. There's something both familiar and otherworldly about Arby's music, which can be heard in San Francisco this Saturday, July 16, when Arby performs at the Regency Ballroom on the same bill as Seun Kuti (read NPR's review of Kuti's From Africa with Fury: Rise).
In one location, we get two African artists of note. (Kuti is a son of legendary Nigerian artist Fela Kuti.) Arby is the late-bloomer of the two -- at least in terms of her international recognition. Long revered in Mali, she toured the United States for the first time last year, and early this year her U.S. concerts drew raves from The New York Times ("one of Africa's greatest singers"), National Public Radio ("a remarkable woman") -- visit her artist page on NPR Music -- and Bitch magazine ("there's really no denying Arby's powerful voice"). It's not just Arby's voice that mesmerizes but the hardscrabble issues she rhapsodizes about, her personal story (her father forbade her from singing music, and her first husband was also dismissive of her singing), and the electrifying musicians and back-up singers she performs with. Now in her early 50s, Arby is still peaking as an artist -- and ecstatic that she's reaching new audiences in Europe and the West.
"The first time (I toured) the United States was a dream come true; this time it's to make my name truly well-known," says Arby in a Skype interview from the Netherlands, "This time it's with more assurance and more confidence."
In the United States, new fans are often lured to Arby's concerts by the "desert blues" designation that promoters apply to her music. The same label has been given to such Malian artists as Tinariwen, Tartit and the late Ali Farka Toure, but I and other journalists have written how misleading this appellation is. "Desert blues" makes it seem that Tinariwen (who perform next Thursday, July 14, at Bimbo's 365 Club), Arby and others are facsimiles of an American blues tradition, when these groups are really their own incarnations -- avowedly African, influenced by many musical styles, including Arabic.
Arby sings in Arabic, Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara, and speaks fluent French. The song she opens most concerts with, "Salou," uses Arabic words that are featured in Islamic religious prayers. ("Salou" is a tune that generations of Malian salt laborers have sung in their quest to survive the hardships of their profession. Arby is herself a salt trader in her hometown of Timbuktu.) "Goumou," one of the most riveting songs on Arby's latest album, Timbuktu Tarab, also employs Arabic words that are transformed into swirling soundscapes. Arby's secularization of traditional songs puts her in company with American singer-guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, a grandson of a famous Jewish cantor, who shares Arby's enthusiasm for reinterpreting older music and who regularly collaborates with her. "Her voice is breathtaking," Lockwood has said, "and her performance is imbued with incredible rhythmic and spiritual warmth."
All this praise creates high expectations for Arby. Mali celebrates her as a national treasure (the government gave her its highest artistic accolade, naming her a Knight of the National Order of Mali), and Arby's songs are frequently remixed and played in Malian dance clubs. In Mali, a Muslim-majority country, more young women are singing professionally than ever before, something Arby helps take credit for.
"You have to evolve with the times," says Arby, speaking in French that is translated into English by her tour manager, Christopher Nolan. "My objective is to see the young girls singing, taking the stage, and doing things for themselves. There are many more women who have become artists -- 70 percent of new artists (in Mali) are women -- and even those who don't have the voice to sing accompany others in dance groups or they dance. A lot has changed, even in my city of Timbuktu."
Arby is related to Ali Farka Toure, Mali's most celebrated musician, who married into her family. In the United States, Toure hit it big in 1994 with the release of Talking Timbuktu, the collaboration with Ry Cooder that won a 1995 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. During the years when Arby was still trying to make a major name for herself, Toure (who died in 2006) encouraged her with words, musical equipment, and financial support for her salt business.
"Life is long, and there are always obstacles," says Arby. "Whatever I do, I do clearly with all my strength."
"My music," Arby adds, "makes me feel young."
Khaira Arby performs this Saturday, July 16, 2011 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit theregencyballroom.com.