Khaira Arby may sing about local concerns, but the North Malian vocalist’s music seems to be crafted for an international audience. She is a cousin of Ali Farka Toure, and like him, she seems to be on a conscious program to praise the righteous and uplift everyone else. Praise songs are as de rigeur in Mali as love songs in the USA, and Arby gives good words to the Almighty, a couple Malian ethnic groups, some historical figures, hard working salt miners, and “a beautiful girl from a good family.”
Once the praise bases are covered, she branches out for a bit of social criticism, speaking out against the lot of women in her part of the world. But since she sings in Arabic, Tamashek, and Sonrhai, what registers to non-Malian ears are her exuberant singing and the accompaniment of her band. Arby has a supple voice, and like her compatriot Oumou Sangare, she’s a bit of a belter with plenty of lung power to power her high-end ornamentations and urgent declarations. If she’d wanted to, she and her two back-up singers could easily have made a voice-only record, slinging phrases back and forth in propulsive rounds.
But like Sangare and Toure, Arby uses a mix of modern instruments — electric guitars, trap drums — and traditional instrumentation with cultural as well as acoustic resonance. The ngoni is basically a lute with a drum for a body; it’s a likely predecessor of the banjo, and depending on which one you play, you might entertain friends or affirm your in-group’s connections to the spirit world. The njarka, a one-string spike fiddle, also speaks to the spirits, and its raw, keening lines supply Arby’s music with desert grit. But her band also includes a couple electric guitarists who sound as conversant with more southern African styles as they do with the bluesy stylings of their locale and a drummer who isn’t exactly shy about leading with his bass drum and has a strong affection for anthemic reggae grooves that are more Babylon By Bus than Studio One.
When it all blends into an undulating weave of melody and rhythm, the effect is magnetic. But there are points where either Arby or drummer Mahalmadane Traoré strikes a too-dramatic gesture that impedes rather than propels the music. It’s those moments that make Timbuktu Tarab solid rather than exemplary.