It’s interesting how in a time of crisis, there can sometimes be an unexpected silver lining. The March 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by terrorist groups intent on creating a fascist religious state based on their perverted version of Islam saw an attempt by the invaders to outlaw music. In a country like Mali, where music is one of their most prized natural resources, this was not just an attack on people’s social life, it was tantamount to cultural genocide. Many of the various ethnic groups, both Berber and African, rely heavily on music for preserving their traditions and heritage. If the attempt to kill music had been successful, people would have been cut off from their histories and thousands of years’ worth of culture would have been obliterated.
While Malians of all types were forced to flee, it has been reported over 400,000 refugees from Northern Mali sought shelter in neighbouring countries and the southern regions of Mali, and musicians were specifically targeted by the invaders. Houses were raided, instruments and equipment destroyed and lives threatened. The annual Festival au Desert, ironically started to celebrate peace in the region, which attracts musicians and audiences from all over the world to Timbuktu in Northern Mali in a celebration of music and cultural exchange, was cancelled due to the danger of travel and worries of fundamentalist attacks on both international and local artists.
However, even before the cessation of hostilities in Northern Mali was finalized, the musicians of Mali were showing their commitment to both their art and their country. The past six or seven months has seen the release of a number of recordings by various members of the community which have not only celebrated the role of music in their society, but have been replete with messages of tolerance and respect for diversity. Even more exciting is the effort being made by those outside the country to increase awareness of the region’s music beyond its borders.
While the Kel Tamashek bands like Tinariwen and various other individuals are known outside the country, there remains thousands of equally talented groups and individuals waiting to be discovered. Khaira Arby has long been acclaimed as the Nightingale of Northern Mali, but probably very few outside her native country have ever heard of her. A new release, Timbuktu Tarab, on the independent American-based Clermont Music label, will give audiences in North America the opportunity to discover this amazing talent.
When listening to Ms. Arby’s music, those familiar with the various styles from the region will almost immediately notice how she incorporates many of them into her sound. This includes the trance electric guitar of the Kel Tamashek (commonly known as the Tuareg), the traditional instruments of the African people (the ngoni and traditional violin) and the blues of the great Ali Farke Toure, her cousin and the person she credits as her biggest influence. The other thing you’ll notice is she doesn’t sing in just one language. As a mixed blood Berber and Sonrhai she draws upon both cultural traditions for not only her music, but her lyrics as well.
A praise song about the bravery, the values and the grandeur of the Kel Tamashek, “Sourgou” is sung in both their Tamashek language and the language of the Sonrhai. However, she not only sings in local dialects, she also sings in what many consider the language of Islam, Arabic. Interestingly enough the two songs on the disc she sings in this language are “Sallou”, a prayer to Allah, and “Tarab”, basically a prayer for Mali. In it she pleads for unity and patience among all the peoples of the country and cites the name of a warrior hero from neighbouring Mauritania as inspiration for them to keep on fighting for their future.
Now I don’t speak any of the languages she sings in, but the good people behind this disc’s release have offered capsule summaries of each song’s content and subject matter so we can at least know what she’s singing about. While it won’t help you understand the lyrics, it will give you some insight into Ms. Arby’s significance to the region and how she attempts to reach as many people as possible. It will also give you an indication of her fearlessness and compassion, as she’ll sing about topics you don’t often hear mentioned in songs from Africa.
“Feriene” is a song condemning the practice of female excision (the female version of circumcision or as it’s medically known, Female Genital Mutilation) which is still commonly practiced throughout the world. For a female singer to bring this up in song takes an incredible amount of bravery as it is not something normally talked about, let alone sung about publicly. But this isn’t the only social issue she addresses. In “Youba”, she addresses the conditions facing those working in salt mines. The song talks about how they return from the mines hungry, thirsty and exhausted, as well as the general hardships facing the miners.
While other musicians from the region might sing about conditions facing their own people, or sing songs which pass on their cultural traditions, few who I’ve come across up to now address the broader social and cultural issues facing Malians as a whole. Arby is able to look past individual tribal aspirations and realize that for the country to succeed as a whole, everybody has to respect each other and work together. She understands how the various people of the region take pride in their history and culture and the need for them to be respected and honoured, but she also believes there is room for all of them under the umbrella of Mali.
As I said earlier, musically, Arby’s music draws upon the various traditions of the region. However, like others, she’s been influenced by Western pop music as well. Blues and rock and roll from America are the biggest influences one can hear in her music. Yet, it’s her voice which will stay with you the most. Not only is she able to communicate the depth of her feelings for whatever subject she is singing about, she has amazing vocal control. How many vocalists do you know who are equally comfortable singing up-tempo rock and roll, gospel, folk and jazz? If you can imagine a mixture of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Annie Lennox, you’ll have an indication of her vocal prowess.
The past year and a half has seen the country of Mali go through some of the most brutal fighting imaginable and its people deal with truly horrible conditions. With nearly half a million people made refugees and the continued threat of terrorist attacks from the groups who staged the uprising, it may take years for the country to completely recover. That being said, the attempt to stamp out music in Northern Mali not only failed, but has resulted in what looks to be a renewed effort to bring the artists of the region to the rest of the world. This is giving us the opportunity to hear wonderful artists like Khaira Arby. She’s one of the great singers of her country and an amazing talent. For anyone with an appreciation for great vocals and great music, this is a record not to be missed.