The fabled riches of Timbuktu have been the source of legends and myths for centuries, yet the West African region is also home to musical riches.
Born a desert stone’s throw from Timbuktu, Khaira Arby will share those riches with an audience at the Urban Lounge on Monday, May 14, in a show that’s unique to the hipster haven as well as to Utah.
With young musicians from Timbutku surrounding her, Arby is touring to promote her new album. “Timbuktu Tarab” features a blend of Africa-meets-West rhythm-and-blues inspired by her cousin, the late Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Toure.
Using her mixed Berber and Sonrhai roots as a guide, on the album Arby displays how the bluegrass and blues of the American South are direct descendants of the desert blues of her native land. Where in America there are mandolins and Gibsons and Fender Telecasters, in her native country of Mali there’s the scraper, plus the calabash hand drum. In the region where the blues were born, the music still serves as an anguished expression of a war-torn region.
Arby, who speaks French, answered questions posed by the Tribune:
What is Timbuktu like?
Timbuktu is in the far north of Mali. An ancient city, with much history. It is a multicultural city with languages from everywhere. It is a city rich in culture, music, libraries with thousands of rare books, and cuisine. Right now, it is a city in crisis. It is in a region of crisis. There is a revolution that has brought great problems there. We are worried.
How did you find the young musicians in your band, and what impact do they have on your music and performances?
My band members are all members of my family, my son, my nephews. So I have known them all for many years.
What influences in your homeland and influences in the West and East inspire you?
I sing about women and women’s rights. That is my primary concern. Girls should be allowed to go to school and advance their education. Girls should be encouraged to follow their dreams to achievement. Why can’t a woman be an artist, a government minister, even president? We need women to solve the problems of the world.
How does your environment affect what music you make and how it is written and recorded?
Our music comes from traditional roots of the music of the Sahara. But just like the rest of the world, we are a modern city. My music has evolved because of our communication with the cultures of the world. Certainly the desert sand is in everything we do and we love the desert. Its vast power has been our companion and we have very ancient cultural traditions. My influences come from artists like Ali Farka Toure, who … was a great encouragement to me. Also, great women artists like Miriam Makeba.
What social and spiritual concerns do you have, and have they changed from what you were focused on 20 or 30 years ago?
This is my fourth tour to the United States and I am always excited to arrive. But this year I came with a heavy heart. Our country has serious problems because of a revolution in the north, where I live, and a breakdown of the central government of Mali. It is very serious. It is the innocent women, children who suffer. Many have fled into the desert countryside or neighboring countries to escape the fighting. They need shelter, clean water and food. The children’s educations have been disrupted. The women are struggling to keep their families together. I pray to Allah that we will have peace. Our faith is strong and deep.
Khaira Arby and Her Band
When • Monday, May 14, at 9 p.m.
Where • Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $10 at 24Tix.com