Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mali's Queen of the Desert Blues visits Chicago

Khaira Arby, the regally beautiful and immensely talented diva of Malian music, came to visit Chicago for the second time ever. Having recently received the Tamani D'Or Award, Mali's highest musical honor since she last came, we were excited to have her grace our presence once again.

I had the chance to visit with her at The Empty Bottle before her set, which was as was a wonderfully intimate opportunity to converse about how she came to be a musician. Her story, she told me, began at about age 11, when she started gaining renown as a singer in school and her neighborhood, eventually becoming well-known in the musicians’ circuit in her hometown Timbuktu. At that age, she was elected to compete in a regional music competition in Gao, but her father was reluctant to give her permission to attend. At this point in the story, Arby shakes her head emphatically and laughs, saying her father would say, “ What is this little girl thinking? She is not even a griot!” It took the older musicians some time to persuade him to allow her to travel, which he allowed only because they pledged to take excellent care of her.

Arby placed first in that competition, and proceeded to place highly at a national competition, after having to overcome the organizers’ incredulous attitude that such a young child had been chosen by the other musicians to represent their region. Her father was pleased with her successes, but it took Arby the next five years to convince him that music was her path for life.

Arby says she vowed early on to use her music transform the society. She began to champion the rights of women to become singers and the freedom to make their own changes. I asked her if that spirit dovetailed with the topics of many of her songs, for example, the one about female mutilation. I don´t understand much French, but I could hear the indignation in her voice as she answered: “It is a terrible things! It must end!” And she added that music was the perfect medium for her messages: “Not everyone goes to conference halls to listen to speakers and find out why it is bad and should end. But message can be gotten through music, because people will even listen to it on street.”

However, Arby clarifies, the topics she likes to sing about do not begin and end with women: “I sing about what touches my life – my last album has two love songs.” She adds that she also tries to praise and thank people who have helped her, so that inspire others to help like she has been helped.

As our conversation came to a close, I asked if there was anything in particular she wanted to communicate to young women, and once again the powerful, warm tone in her voice came out: “Be courageous. Always be your very best. If you are an engineer, be the best. If you are a government official, be the best. Don’t let them supersede you, but always respect the men.”

After the conversation, the Queen of the Desert Blues swept onto the stage and sang for us. Her voice soared and caressed the air, layering rich sparkling tones upon the bluesy riffs provided by the excellent younger musicians backing her up. Her words still rang in my ears, and it was a special experience to listen to the songs with a little bit more insight as to the powerful message that she shares with us.

-Catalina Maria Johnson
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