Sunday, September 5, 2010

Khaira Arby & Sway Machinery light up Ashkenaz tonight at Harbourfront

Brookyln's Sway Machinery – inspired as much by the entrancing guitar scorch of desert blues Tinariwen as the historic Chazzanuth recordings of majestic bass-baritone belting Cantor Zawel Kwartin from the 20s – have somehow managed to reconcile the disparate influences of contemporary Islamic African blues and ancient Jewish spiritualism into a magically charged-up sound all their own.
This past January, the adventuresome members of Sway Machinery,  led by singer/guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood (who has well-regarded Cantor Jacob Konigsberg as his maternal grandfather in addition to studying blues guitar with noted Piedmont stylist Carolina Slim) gladly accepted the wild card role at Mali's annual Festival au Desert and wowed the assembled crowd in Essakane. Evidently it went so well, they decided to hang around Bamako for 10 more days where they recorded an album with their new pals, Vieux Farka Toure and Djelimady Tounkara along with celebrated singer Khaira Arby. First rising to notoriety as a featured vocalist with Bamako's Orchestra Badema in the late 80s, desert diva Arby – the Agouni-born cousin of Ali Farka Toure – soon went solo and became known throughout West Africa as Mali's "Nightingale of the North." Yet despite popular acclaim at home, Arby hasn't really connected with audiences in Europe and North America which should be remedied by her current tour which brings her to Toronto tonight (Sunday, September 5) as the guest vocalist with Sway Machinery for their free show at Harbourfront's Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay West) at 11 pm.
The brilliant pairing of powerhouse shouter like Arby – drawing on her mixed Berber and Songhai roots – with the amped up Brooklyn bashers of Sway Machinery should make for an explosive cultural collision that's certain to be a highlight of this year's Ashkenaz Festival. The handful of people who witness the showdown will likely be raving about it for years to come. Those who can't make the Harbourfront gig tonight should check out Arby's fantastic new disc Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music).
Here are the accompanying notes...



Khaira Arby
Timbuktu Tarab
Clermont Music

For women, singing can be the road to personal power. When their voice is as strong as Malian vocalist Khaira Arby’s, that power can move mountains, change minds, and win battles.
Arby’s rich, potent sound aims to do just that on her new Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music) disc, shifting seamlessly between the edgy and progressive and the traditional and deeply rooted. Inspired by her cousin Ali Farka Toure, Arby turns to her mixed Berber and Songhai roots and draws on a sweet mixture of desert blues and recording sophistication, blending ripping electric guitar with the forefather of the banjo and funky drum breaks with the traditional percussion of the scraper and the calabash.
Though very much her own woman, Arby, born in a village not far from the famed city of Timbutku, is firmly planted in the desert sand. Her creativity flows in part from the people of her home region of Northern Mali—the young musicians in her band all hail from Timbuktu—and from their past and present struggles. As Arby puts it, “Trab is our land, our home, Timbuktu. Its history, its mystery, everything.”
And this history runs deep through Arby’s music. “Djaba” is a song about a legendary ancestral Tamashek warrior; it is also an authentic dance in Timbuktu. By reframing and reinterpreting the tale, Arby hopes to not only retell this important story, but also keep the dance alive among younger generations. “Sourgou” recounts the Tamasheks’ struggle against colonial domination, while “Youba” recounts struggles of a more contemporary sort, praising the brave return of salt mine workers by moonlight.
Arby has taken up—and updated—one important role of African women in traditional societies: praise singing. This means bluesy homage to the prophet Mohammed (“Salou”) or to good friends. “Dja Cheickna” praises a beautiful friend of Arby’s from a good family: “May Dja Cheickna live a good life.” The song bursts with funky high-hat, sizzling bass and guitar, and Arby’s stunning yodeling, as age-old hand-clapping rhythms entwine with crunchy distorted guitar.
Yet despite deep roots, Arby has long gone her own way, turning the bright compliments and veiled metaphors of traditional female praise and critique into hard-edged calls for change and justice. Her own life, discouraged by relatives who did not approve of her public performances, has honed this message. And like Miriam Makeba and other African divas before her, Arby embraces her power through words.
Arby’s composition process maximizes this and begins with the words themselves, drawing on a theme and developing lyrics from there. For her, the melody, rhythm and accompaniment all come later, highlighting the importance of music as social criticism to her fellow Malians. While she draws on the four languages of her heritage, the true impact of words bursts forth in her strong vocal delivery.
Arby addresses issues both painful and controversial, yet with a profound sense of heart and personal connection. In “Wayidou,” she pleads for the better treatment of women in Mali in general, “Happiness for women is gone. In these times we cannot speak of happiness and light. Why in a country of beautiful women do men go to war?”
In “Feryene,” she speaks out against female circumcision, which has hurt or killed many young Malian women, and continues to be a common practice. “Female excision has caused much suffering and much human loss. I am making people aware so that it ends and so that all Mali fights against it. As a mother I am making my contribution to that effort.”
Khaira Arby, singing out and speaking out, has still become a darling of the Malian scene, as she captures the modern buzz of Timbuktu and the lilting pace of the desert sands, a world of movement and flow.
Yet her mind is always on the hope and struggle that guides her songs: “I dream of a recording studio and cultural center in Timbuktu for young talent, and I want to struggle against war, sickness, and poverty by recording albums in all the languages I can. I want to teach the daughters of the world, teach them to think, to value themselves, to sing.” 



Khaira Arby & Sway Machinery @ Festival au Desert 2010
Sourgou by Khaira Arby

 

Sway Machinery & Super Khoumiessa 




LINKS
Khaira Arby http://www.myspace.com/khairaarby
Sway Machinery http://www.myspace.com/theswaymachinery
Ashkenaz Festival http://www.ashkenazfestival.com/

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