Malian singer Khaira Arby returns to Chicago | Bleader

Malian singer Khaira Arby returns to Chicago


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Khaira Arby
  • Khaira Arby
I imagine it's hard to leave your homeland when it's rocked by political strife, but the great Malian singer Khaira Arby is back in the U.S. for her third tour since debuting here in fall 2010—she performs Thursday night at the Old Town School. In a recent interview published by the Washington City Paper, Arby expressed her concerns about the coup in her country: "The innocent victims are my worry. Many families have fled the north to neighboring countries or to the desert countryside or to the south of Mali. My own family has fled to the south. So have the families of the members of my band. We are very worried for our families' safety and especially for those who have remained in Timbuktu and the north. Their circumstances are now extremely difficult. The coup and rebellion have created a humanitarian crisis. First, I pray that everyone will help the innocent women, children and families. They are the ones who are suffering."

Arby gave some incredible performances as part of the World Music Festival in 2010—in particular, she and her scrappy band exceeded my already high expectations with their knockout set at Reggie's Rock Club. Back then, in advance of her show, I wrote:

She's been a major figure in Malian music for nearly two decades, but singer Khaira Arby is only now beginning to make inroads in the U.S., releasing the stunning Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont) and embarking on her first major North American tour. Legendary guitarist Ali Farka Toure was one of her cousins, and though you can hear the influence of his so-called desert blues in her music, she has her own hypnotic sound, one that also draws on the Tuareg traditions known to Americans largely through bands like Tinariwen—rhythms cycle past one another, shifting in and out of sync, with electric guitar, n'goni, and fiddle dancing through a thrilling give-and-take of solo lines, stabbing licks, and circular riffs. Yet as fantastic as her band is, Arby is unequivocally the focal point. She's got a strong, piercing voice that practically grabs you by the throat, and her ironclad pitch control can withstand her most forceful blasts of lung power; her occasional subtle use of melodic ornament does nothing to dilute her bluesy, granite-hard delivery. A few tracks on the album tangle with reggae or ramp up into a tougher electric sound, with several guitars slashing and jousting, but even then Arby burns brighter than everything around her. Timbuktu Tarab is one of the best records from Africa I've heard in years.

In concert her voice cut like a scythe, but it was also plush and soulful. She had a proud, stately bearing, commanding the stage like the hero she is in her homeland—and her guitarist Abdramane Toure, then only 17, practically stole the show despite her gravitas, basking in the spotlight like a seasoned rock star. The group is about to release a new three-song EP called Chini Chini, recorded last year in New York—it's a prelude to a new album due in the fall. As you can hear in the track below, the music has a bit more electric crackle than Timbuktu Tarab, but the core sound—and Arby's commanding presence—remain unchanged.

Khairy Arby, "Chini Chini"

Today's playlist:

Wooden Shjips, West (Thrill Jockey)
Nice Guy Trio, Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music (Porto Franco)
Joe Morris Quartet, Today on Earth (Aum Fidelity)
Van Dyke Parks, Clang of the Yankee Reaper (Edsel)
Emily Portman, The Glamoury (Furrow)

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