Out of Africa comes Khaira Arby, the Nightingale of the North
Thanks to an admirer, one of Mali’s finest performs Thursday, July 21 at Saint Rocke
She’s been called the Nightingale of the North, but Malian singer Khaira Arby was a caged songbird for much of her life. Born in Abaradjou, just north of Timbuktu, Arby’s Berber father forbade her musical aspirations, as did her first husband for the ten years they were married – despite the encouragement of the late Ali Farka Touré who was related to Arby by marriage. But eventually the bird flew free, and to everyone’s benefit. She was even designated a Knight of the National Order of Mali.
We don’t often see international, let alone African, performers of this caliber passing through the SouthBay, but Khaira Arby – fluent in French and singing in Songhai, Bambara, Tamashek and Arabic – is playing tonight at Saint Rocke inHermosa Beach. It’s a concert that would have stepped around the community altogether if not for the energy and passion of Wamuhu Waweru, who grew up in Kenya and remains attuned to the music emerging from the continent of her youth.
Khaira Arby came to Waweru’s attention because of the singer’s connection to Ali Farka Touré, whose music Waweru adored. Several years later, she says, “I heard through the grapevine that [Arby] was going to be playing inL.A.” Waweru, very excited, purchased tickets – and then learned that the show had been cancelled. Actually, at the last moment it was switched to another venue, was not well publicized and thus poorly attended, but the result was an intimate show and the chance for Waweru, after the concert, to go back stage and meet the singer.
Of the music and the performance, Waweru says: “It’s medicine; I call it my HMO. I walk in and here’s this beautiful, beautiful woman, she’s a goddess. She looks like she’s carved out of ancient stone. She played and she blew us all away; we had a really good connection. My friend and I, we call ourselves the African music warriors, we go to every show because we realize it’s a symbiotic relationship… When [the musicians] see somebody really appreciating [them] it gives them even more energy to share.”
That evening, Waweru continues, “everybody that was there left changed, and I just said ‘I have to, have to, have to do a show for this woman, and just do it right, when she comes back into town.’” Waweru usually promotes her shows inLos Angeles, but this time had been eyeingLong Beach. There were no takers for a Thursday night. “And so,” she says with a soft laugh, “the Universe dropped me right here in the middle ofHermosa Beach.”
It may appear simple, but it requires enthusiasm, charm, and a certain business acumen to win over and place touring bands. “What I do,” Waweru says, “is look at schedules for my favorite musicians,” keeping an eye out for when they’re coming toLos Angeles. Is their calendar fully booked? Is there a day or two that’s open? If so, “I contact their management or booking agency” and then she tries to find them another venue. “Because these people want to work every single day they’re here and make as much money as they can and then go back home.”
Long distance voyager
Now, someone from Timbuktu, that’s a little out of the mainstream for us.
“Definitely. You can’t get more out of the mainstream than this.
“It’s one of the places that I’m very hopeful about Africa,” Waweru adds, referring toTimbuktu. “They’re really holding onto their traditions, and [Khaira Arby] is one of the keepers of the tradition because so much Westernization, capitalism, materialism and over-consumption have taken over the world.” With that prevalent mentality, she notes, resources will quickly be depleted. “I’m afraid my great-grandchildren or even my grandchildren, or maybe my children, might not really even appreciate and get to enjoyAfricaas it was. One of the reasons why I do [the promoting] is to show how beautiful their culture is… and to show Americans the different way as well – a more tolerant way, a fun way, an easygoing way, a not-work-so-much way.”
Waweru began promoting bands about a year and a half ago. “I always say it took me to come here to reconnect more to what I am, what I was, [and more to] the African culture. As I said, everybody there wants to wear American clothes; they want to eat American food.” In other words, the infiltration of non-native, non-traditional styles, fashions, and ways of thinking and viewing the world is changing the character and outlook of the African people, for better or for worse.
When Wamuhu Waweru came to theU.S.she landed in what seems a most unusual spot:Tulsa,Oklahoma.
“Which was really a big shock, because our impression of America was probably [as wrongly equivalent] to what most Americans’ impression of Africa was – starving kids running around, no clothes, flies all over. And my impression ofAmericawas “Melrose Place,” “Beverly Hills90211,” “West Wing” – that’s what they showed us over there. Fun stuff. And then they drop you inTulsa,Oklahoma… Uh, no, this wasn’t what I was expecting…”
But that’s where her brother was; and her family, being religious, “wanted me to be in a Bible Belt area; which I’m glad, because if I’d come straight toL.A.I think it would have been too intense for me. So I was there for five years. AndL.A., now it’s been ten years since I’ve moved here.”
Good golly, MissMali
Khaira Arby’s last album, “Timbuktu Tarab,” came out in 2010, and selections can be found on the Internet. Lately, the singer has been billed with Seun Kuti, brother of Femi and son of Nigerian great Fela Kuti. At Saint Rocke, the opening slot will go to Remi Kabaka, a master of the talking drum. DJ Nnamdi, whose program “Radio Afrodicia” can be heard between 2 and 4 p.m. on Saturdays on 90.7 KPFK, will also be on hand.
Her current tour is Arby’s second in theUnited States. Considering the odds stacked against her, it’s remarkable what she’s achieved. “Especially for an African woman, an African Muslim woman,” Waweru says, “to have the audacity and hope, is such a beautiful story. When she sings the blues you can see she’s been through that; when she sings happy songs you can see she [knows] what joy’s all about. When she sings songs to Allah you can tell that she is really thankful and praising; she sings mostly praising songs.”
And yet in the finest singers one can hear the sorrow as well as the joy, the sorrow that they’ve been able to surmount.
Waweru agrees. “When an artist is able to transcend the ego and really give you who they are you can feel it because you’ve been there, because of the feelings that are common with you as well.”
No one leaves Arby’s shows untouched. “Everybody is in a daze or crying, even if you are not Muslim. I’m not Muslim myself but when she sings her songs I identify with it because you think, ‘Oh, you’re singing to the person I believe is your Creator,’ and so for me it’s very beautiful. Especially during this time when the Muslim culture is getting so much bad press. It’s such a small percentage that does those crazy things.
“I break it down to a very simple thing,” Waweru explains; “we’re all humans. Energy’s energy, every action has a reaction. We are from the same source, we have the same feelings, we have the same wants, we have the same needs. For me, the slogan for my company (go to mixbliss.com) is ‘celebrating the human spirit through the arts’ where it doesn’t matter what you believe, where you’re from; it’s just finding a common ground.”
We may be from the same source, as Waweru says, but some of us never remain for long in the same place. Perhaps in some ways we carry our sense of place, of home, on our shoulders. The nomadic people of the northern Sahara, for instance; and yet they retain an identity, maybe not so much through the tangible arts as through those they preserve in their minds and hearts: their music.
“Africais a continent of many, many different tribes,” Waweru says. “In my country alone, inKenya, we have about 42 to 45 tribes; every tribe speaks its own different language. Every tribe uses different instruments.” In fluid societies without the benefits of material trappings almost any object can be conscripted to serve as a musical instrument.
“Drums are the heartbeat of African music; the thing that sets us apart is the percussion aspect of it. Some countries have five or six different drums, some countries have hundreds of drums.”
For economic reasons, Khaira Arby doesn’t travel with the large ensemble she’ll employ inMali, so we won’t get the full brunt of her band’s percussive delivery at Saint Rocke, but we’ll get a taste of it at least through the calabash drum with its booming sound. Mostly we’ll be able to bask in Arby’s hypnotic, high-pitched voice and in the guitars that in some ways sound like banjos because they shimmer and are so lively. What may not be so evident is that Arby’s lyrics often focus on themes of social injustice. She wants to be an example to other women, to show them that they, too, can follow their dreams and achieve freedom and success in their lives.
But in the end? “It’s happy music,” Waweru says. “African music was sung during different times, if there was a birth, if there was a circumcision or coming-of-age ceremony, or death. If you go to an African funeral…” She pauses. “The first time I went to an American funeral I was very shocked, because our funerals [have music] and dancing and celebrate a person’s life.”
What Khaira Arby and her band perform, what Wamuhu Waweru promotes, is healing music, music that bridges the gap between people in every aspect, whether political or religious or whether through ethnicity. It’s a tall order, but this music comes with deep roots, and those roots go back for generation upon generation.
Khaira Arby performs tonight (Thursday) at Saint Rocke, 142 Pacific Coast Hwy, Hermosa Beach. Tickets, $15 online and $20 at the door (plus service fees). Remi Kabaka opens on talking drums. Showtime, 9 p.m. A portion of the proceeds will benefit March Forth Kenya Kids. (310) 372-0035 or go to saintrocke.com.
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