Khaira Arby, a Malian singer whose vocal prowess was recognised internationally as “one of the most prized voices to come out of West Africa in recent years” was confirmed dead on Sunday 19 August in Bamako, Mali’s capital. She was 58. The Malian singer and songwriter was particularly known for remaining outspoken at a time of civil war and harsh oppression by Islamist militants.
Beginning her musical career at the age of 11, Arby developed powerful, vocal skills that earned her glowing international reviews in 2010 with the album Timbuktu Tarab. Her songs were sung in Arabic, Bambara, Tamasheq and Songhai languages, reflecting the diverse ethnic mix of the vast Sahel country.
Whether decrying female genital mutilation, calling for women to be able to shape their own happiness and eventually becoming a strong voice for Malian unity and peace against the twin tides of Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants who took over the country’s north in 2012, Arby created songs and a platform carrying a strong social theme, which many would come to identify with.
She found success in music despite the constraints imposed on women in Mali’s male-dominated, largely Islamic society, where traditional gender roles still shape the country’s culture. Few female musicians, for example, play the djembe hand drum, which is traditionally reserved for men. Ms. Arby would instead often use a West African calabash drum for percussion.
As northern Mali descended into terror in 2012, Arby fled her beloved Timbuktu for the relative safety of Mali’s capital city, Bamako, further south, after jihadists threatened her and her family and destroyed her instruments. However In 2013, she appeared to stand up against the implementation of sharia law by jihadist groups and the waves of terror and violence that forced hundreds of thousands of people either further south or into neighboring countries.
Culture Minister Ndiaye Ramatoulaye Diallo said to AFP that Malians felt “great sadness” at Arby’s death. “Some called her ‘The Nightingale of Timbuktu’ but the truth is that, from the Berber blues of the Sahara to mandingo groove, she was also open to diversity, soaking up the fertile breath of mixity, taking up her social role as a weaver of links” between communities, she said.
Born near Timbuktu, Arby wasn’t always a singer and, in fact, had opposition from her family with her father making sure she was married at age 16 with the intention to bar her from pursuing music. She married and had children, but then divorced, remarrying one of Africa’s biggest stars: the late, Grammy-winning guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Farka Touré proved an invaluable support to her resurgence, inviting her to appear with him as a guest artist and helping source the funds needed to buy equipment for her band.
She frequently performed at the annual Festival au Désert in Mali, which attracted tourists from all over the world as well as Western rock stars like Bono, of U2, and Robert Plan, with genre-crossing music that mixed Malian rhythms from multiple traditions with funk, psychedelia, reggae and electric blues and her raw, rollicking vocals. “In my music,” she told the public radio program Afropop in 2010, “all the ethnic groups of Timbuktu find themselves, and I sing to all of them, one by one.”
Arby was eventually able to return to her beloved Timbuktu; just last December, she appeared as the first artist in a new concert series put on by a group called Timbuktu Renaissance. Despite fears of being kidnapped or harmed, she told The Guardian that she planned to move back to the city if a new recording studio could be built there.
“Our religion has never banned music,” the singer told the French newspaper Libération in 2016. “The Prophet was greeted with songs when he arrived in Mecca. Cutting music off from us, it’s like keeping us from breathing. But we continue fighting, and it’s going to go on, God willing.”
She garnered the titles “Nightingale of Timbuktu” and the “Diva of the Desert,” and became a celebrated singer and recording artist from a nation that has produced a number of musicians with global reach. Arby performed in Timbuktu this year at the first of a series of monthly concerts sponsored by Timbuktu Renaissance, an organization devoted to restoring the city as the center of arts and scholarship that it had been for centuries. She was buried near her family home in Bamako, survived by a daughter, five sons and 14 grandchildren.