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Malian star Khaira Arby sings for unity amid her country's civil conflict

Chris Kendall

Malian singer Khaira Arby, one of the big world music breakthroughs of recent years, has been able to follow events in her conflict-torn home country while touring the U.S. (with a can’t-miss show scheduled for Friday at the Satellite club in Silver Lake).

“While we’ve been on tour in the U.S. we have been able to keep up to date on what has been happening there buy using internet new services,” she says, translated from French by manager Chris Barton.CK “We do not speak English, so we do not know how the major media has been reporting the situation.”

Perhaps she’s being diplomatic. You don’t have to speak English to be able to tell even at a glance that the major media here has done very little reporting on that dire situation, with rival political/military forces and factions stemming from various cultures engaged in what amounts to civil war. It’s barely popped up amid coverage here of the economy (domestic and in the Eurozone) and presidential politics. 

In fact, what we know here (if we know anything) of Mali is more likely connected to the wealth of music that’s made its way here -- most prominently what's come to be seen as the proto-blues of guitarist Ali Farka Touré and now his son Vieux Farka Touré, the griot traditions embodied by kora master Toumani Diabaté and the recent “discovery” of the rebel desert trance-blues of the Saharan nomadic Tuareg culture led by the band Tinariwen (itself formed out of the guerrilla warriors who’d battled the Malian government for several decades). 

Arby represents some of both, and more. Her mother is Tuareg, her father an Arabic Berber. She grew up in a village near Timbuktu, became active in women’s rights movements and sings in four languages, a forceful voice for clear thinking, acceptance and reason. All this fuels her powerfully electric music, as heard on her arresting 2010 album Timbuktu Tarab, that stands in contrast to the floating trance we’ve come to know from Mali.

As such she’s a perfect person to speak, or sing, for peace and unity. And that’s just what she’s done with “Le Monde Pour La Paix,” a collaboration with Vieux Farka Touré, Bassekou Kouyate (a leading player of the banjo-antecedent the ngoni) on a track written and performed by JeConte & the Mali Allstars.


It would seem to be a song bringing together different traditions with different aims. She is having nothing of that.

“I disagree,” she says. “The song we did came out of a single Malian tradition of urging peace and reconciliation. The cultural traditions we come from are left behind at the studio door. We are one in the message for peace and cooperation, Peace will return to our country, inshallah. With dialogue and compromise, peace will return. People have been living together for decades. I know the people are not causing the problems today. The people want a return to peace.”

She also hopes that those attracted to Malian music will make the effort to learn of what’s behind it, and be open to a larger scope of sounds representing the country. (A terrific Afropop Worldwide interview with Mali cultural histort authority Cherif Keita details the deep role music has played in the West African nation through the centuries.)

“There is much more to a culture and society than its music,” she says. “We musicians in Mali that you mention know each other very well. Most of us have been singing about social issues for many years. I myself have sung about the rights of women and the need for peace many times. There are some videos available on the Internet that include a performance I gave several years ago about the tragedy of conflict such as we are experiencing now.

“I come from Timbuktu, which is a multicultural, international city,” she says. “Traditions blend all the time. The world is opening up beyond classifications of griot. Togayt the messages we hear come from all kinds of sources. Rap, hip-hop and reggae is the music coming out of young people’s players.”

Those things may not be part of her music, but she’s long drawn on rock power and soul fire. A new EP, “Chini Chini,” previewing an album-in-process, continues the evolution of her sound, as heard on the title song.



She also notes that the new album will include another song she’s written about the current events, “La Paix,” which she has been performing along the U.S. tour. Her role with the topical songs and her visibility at this time - building on her first visits to the U.S. last year, including shows with the New York band Sway Machinery, with whom she made the album The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1 - give her opportunities to be a leader in international awareness. It’s just an extension of the role she’s taken at home, she says.

“My role remains as it has always been, to sing about the rights of women and to sing for peace,” she says. “It is the rights of women and children that concerns me. We do not need bombs, we need pumps for water. We do not need guns or bullets, we need food and medicinal supplies for the thousands of families that have been displaced in this time of conflict. We need schools for the children, our future, because their lives have been disrupted.”

The UN's High Council for Refugees has sent emergency teams to aid refugees of the Malian strife who have fled to neighboring countries. Much-needed donations to help the effort can be made at this link.