Khaira Arby, Timbuktu diva
Portrait of a Malian star
The singer from northern Mali, Khaira Arby, has a status on a level with Oumou Sangaré in her homeland. Despite a keen following in the United States, in France she remains largely unknown. Not for long though, since she is scheduled to perform at the Babel Med Festival in Marseille at the end of March.
In Mali each region has its divas. Down south, Oumou Sangaré is the Wassoulou nightingale, but in Timbuktu to the north, it’s the voice of Khaira Arby that is listened to and respected. The singer has been on the scene since the 1970s and is highly popular among the country’s northern communities, yet she is little known in Europe, despite touring there a few years ago with the late Ali Farka Touré, her old friend from Niafunké.
In the United States, she left a mark with her impressive 2011 tour, her voice and style, to the point that the New York Times ranked her 2010 album, Timbuktu Tarab, among the best world music albums of the decade. In France, her performance at the Babel Med Festival in Marseille at the end of March is likely to draw attention to the northern Malian singing star.
The daughter of a Tuareg father and a Songhai mother, Khaira Arby started singing at the age of eleven in the Timbuktu troupe back in 1972. As part of the policy for authentic Malian culture, all regions in the country were obliged to promote their territory. The local authorities would provide musicians with themes on current events on which to base their compositions.
What started off as a hobby for Khaira quickly turned into a more serious activity. She left her hometown to join the Gao artistic troupe 400 kilometres to the east. Her father refused to let her sing, and tried to “extinguish” her voice with his concoctions, but their only effect was to make it stronger.
Over the years, Khaira Arby’s popularity rose and she was increasingly in demand to sing at weddings, parties and circumcisions. After being given in marriage to a man who also refused to let her sing, like many of his contemporaries, she put her career on hold to focus on home life. The frustration proved too strong and she ended up divorcing, then joined Mali’s National Badema band before embarking on a solo career in the early 1990s. Armed with a strong will and independent nature, she was the first woman to release an album in her own name in the Timbuktu region.
Voice of peace
Her first studio recording, Moulaye, was primarily a reaction to current events in the region: 1992 was a period of Tuareg rebellion, inter-ethnic confrontation in the north and massive exodus. Her first album was a call for peace. Since then, the town of Timbuktu has regularly been the scene of violent clashes between the Tuareg communities and the Malian army.
Her whole artistic career has followed the political and social events in the region: for twenty years she has been calling for union and singing in almost every language spoken in Mali: Songhai, Fula, Tamasheq, Bambara and even French. Her strong position has earned her a great deal of respect in northern Mali, and since 2010 she has regularly been invited to the United Nations assembly to sing about peace. Khaira Arby’s unusual voice carries with it all of Timbuktu’s cultural richness, its inescapable mystery and entire history, right up to the present day.
Performing live on 31 March at the Babel Med Music Festival in Marseille
Khaira Arby Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont music) 2011