Malian singer Khaira Arby and her band will appear for free tonight at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage as part of their first U.S.tour, which coincides with the release of Arby’s first North American album, Timbuktu Tarab, on the Clermont Music label. Arby sings in a brash, raw-edged voice in Sonrai, Arabic, and Tamashek over her band’s mix of noisy electric guitar, traditional Malian percussion, and stringed instruments.
Arby has been singing professionally for two decades. The daughter of a Songhai/Tamashek Islamic mother and a Berber father, she began singing as a child in her Saharan village home just north of Timbuktu, but was discouraged from continuing to do so by her father, who married her off at age 14. At 22 she was divorced, and began singing regularly with a band, and on occasion with her cousin, the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure. In Mali she and her group have released a number of cassettes including the effort Ya Rassoul, which according to the Awesometapesfromafrica blog, was “enormously popular in Timbuktu, where you will hear this tape playing out of a ghetto blaster in a shop or the cassette deck of a car. This is not ‘world music,’ this is just plain old awesome music that straddles the linguistic and cultural divide of a place like Timbuktu.”
Timbuktu Tarab has its awesome moments, as well. Arby’s voice is loud and husky as she roars out a mixture of praise songs and social criticism over her two desert-blues electric guitarists, the ngoni lute, the njarka one string fiddle, bass, drums, and backing vocalists. Not all of it works. It’s a bit samey-sounding at times, as Arby does not display here the wide melodic range of her fellow countrywoman Oumou Sangare. However, videos of older material show that she can sing more softly when she wants to.
Khaira Arby and band perform for free from 6 to 7 p.m. (the concert will also be webcast) today at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F St., NW. (800) 444-1324.