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Khaira Arby in Concert in New York

18 August 2010 18 August 2010 Tags: , No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Photo by Chris Kendall

The west African country of Mali is a rich place with a noble history which began even before the decisive juncture circa 1234, with the epic victory of Soundiata Keïta over Soumangourou Kanté. The country was destined for greatness.

The economic poverty that the country finds itself in right now is nothing but a blink of the eye in their long, majestic timeline. Mali is still great. In the area of music, they are without peer.

The night sky in Bamako twinkles with more stars than any other place. Just look at the number of Malian artists who have cracked the world music charts and who have toured the US this year so far. Tinariwen, Vieux Farka Touré, Ali Farka Touré, Diabaté Toumani, Kouyaté Bassékou, Dagnon Bako, Keïta Salif; seven artists from this small country and an eight is about to be the latest conqueror of the hearts of Americans.

Already, idiots in the press have coined or continued to perpetrate the propagation of asinine sobriquets. This from people who, I am sure, have no idea what a nightingale looks like, let alone identify one by sound. Sic. Don’t be surprised if the worldbeaters and afropoppers say that she is the Tina Turner of Mali, or some such inane comparison.

Simply put, Khaira Arby is a great singer and stage performer. She began her twenty date American tour with a concert at Bard College and it was a privilege for me to be there to witness this great artist.

Ms. Arby possesses a commanding stage presence and she exuded confidence that her music could move people despite the linguistic chasm between her and her audience which she bridged with with the endearing use of the few English words she knew. She created the ambiance for a total enjoyment of the music.

Her voice is a powerful, crystalline, soprano instrument that pierced the balmy New York night sky and levitated the spirit to the dance floor. She made use of it most of time but she also showed some finesse, caressing some lines with a softer voice in a lower register. Combined with lively facial expressions and hand gestures, it made for dramatic interpretations from the stage, thus did she entrance her audience.

The rhythms and melodies of the Songhai [they arose when Mali began to slide] are especially infectious. Whether it’s the graceful takamba or shades of the energetic gao-gao, the appeal is irresistible. Ms. Arby’s repertoire spanned these genres and more. Song construction relied on slight variations of the lines, and each variation emphasized when sung, lending to captivating sonic interpretations.

The opening song was an invocation of the maoulana, the rassoul, the nabi, to ensure a successful evening and such techniques were employed on it as with many others. Sometimes she took to the calabash and pounded out deeper rhythms than the man in her band. Formidable!

As for the band, she could not have had more solid support. Abdourahamane Touré forced a chainsaw buzz from his guitar, showing off his BFA degree in Hendrixology. As much as he wowed the crowd with his wizardry, the sound can be jarring if overused and I do hope it was tempered in studio on the new ceedee just out this week.

By contrast, the warm tinkling from the dièlin’goni of Ebelaw Yattara was exciting always. Baba Larab was solid and dependable on bass. The rhythmic core that called the body to dance was provided for by batterie and calabash. Both did this in different ways. Mahalmadane Traoré was the drummer of both.

On batterie, the triplet beats were rousing and on calabash, the beats reflected the gait of camels and provided dancers with many opportunities for physical interpretation. Towards the middle of the second set, Ms. Arby showed her stage experience by declaring “Finish!” in order to elicit a chorus of opposition from the audience, which she got.

And when she thought it was not loud enough, she employed that other trick that artists use, cupping her hands to her ears to signal, “I can’t hear you!”. Thus did she beguile and endear herself to her audience. When the show was finally finished, the audience implored her for more and she complied, saying “One”.

Just another English word she knew. Judging from this first concert, I’d say the tour will be very successful as will her new ceedee, “Timbuktu Tarab”. If you go to the show and enjoyed it, please buzz it to viral status. Highly recommended.

Written by Akenataa Hammagaadji.
Akenaata Hammagaadji is an African music expert and cultural critic. He is the radio host of First World Music, an African music programme broadcast from WVKR. His insightful music reviews, which goes beyond music into cultural dissections, can be found in his weekly First World Music Newsletter, now a blog on afrobeatradio.net

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