Khaira Arby, Outspoken Malian Singer With Global Reach, Dies at 58

Khaira Arby performing at the Bell House in Brooklyn in 2011. The New York Times music critic Jon Pareles called that show one of the concert highlights of the year.CreditBrian Harkin for The New York Times

BAMAKO, Mali — Khaira Arby, a Malian singer and songwriter with an international presence who remained outspoken at a time of civil war and harsh oppression by Islamist militants, died on Sunday in Bamako, Mali’s capital. She was 58.

Her son confirmed her death, at Le Luxembourg Hospital, saying she had been treated for heart problems. She lived in Bamako.

Known as the “Nightingale of Timbuktu” and the “Diva of the Desert,” Ms. Arby was a celebrated singer and recording artist from a nation that has produced a number of musicians with global reach, among them the guitarist and songwriter Ali Farka Touré, with whom Ms. Arby performed in concert. Her most popular album was “Timbuktu Tarab, released in 2010.

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 Plant, of Led Zeppelin, before being suspended in recent years because of continuing violent unrest.

And she toured internationally, drawing fans with genre-crossing music that mixed Malian rhythms from multiple traditions with funk, psychedelia, reggae and electric blues. In 2011, the Times music critic Jon Pareles cited a performance by Ms. Arby and her band as one of the concert highlights of the year, calling it “hortatory, hypnotic and thoroughly funky.” The next year she took her band to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee.

Ms. Arby 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.

She was revered in Mali for her courage in criticizing the government, calling out corruption and singing about taboo subjects like female genital cutting, which is common there. She also spoke openly about her divorce from her first husband, saying the marriage had gotten in the way of her singing.

the Timbuktu diva Khaira Arby : desert bluesCreditVideo by afropopstar

Ms. Arby’s rise to fame seemed improbable from the start. Born on Sept. 21, 1959, to parents of the predominantly Muslim Tuareg and Songhai ethnic groups, she grew up in a traditional community in the village of Agoni, where public singing by women was frowned upon.

But she resisted her father’s orders to stop singing and joined Malian musical troupes in the northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao. Even after her father married her off at 16, again forbidding her to sing, she continued to do so.

She performed around Mali, singing in the language of multiple ethnic groups there, and beginning in the early 2000s visitors heard her at international events like the Festival au Désert, spreading her reputation further.

Ms. Arby played a calabash drum with her band in Brooklyn in 2011. She used the instrument because under Malian tradition another hand drum, the djembe, is reserved for men.CreditBrian Harkin for The New York Times

Ms. Arby was in Bamako in 2012 when a democratically elected government was toppled in a coup by military officers, who had complained of a lack of government support in fighting Tuareg rebels backed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional terrorist organization with roots in Algeria. The rebels had invaded the cities of Gao and ancient Timbuktu and would occupy them for 10 months.

Imposing a severe version of Islamic law, the militants flogged women for being out on the street or for not being covered up enough. They cut off the hands of those accused of theft. And they banned the airing or playing of Mali’s rich traditional music, which they described as “satanic.” Musicians fled.

Ms. Arby had remained in Bamako, but she spoke out against the militants.

“If you ban music in Mali, or in the whole world, it’s like cutting people’s oxygen off,” Ms. Arby said in “They Will Have to Kill Us First,” a documentary film about the impact of the occupation on Malian musicians and their life in exile.

In 2013 a French military intervention pushed the Islamic militants back, and Ms. Arby led an effort to hold the first concert in Timbuktu, her home city, which was still shellshocked from the rebel invasion and a bloody intervention by the Malian military.

“She just got out on the street and started singing with a few local musicians, and everyone just came out of their houses and just started floating towards the sound — it was extraordinary,” said Johanna Schwartz, the director of “They Will Have to Kill Us First.”

Ms. 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.

Mali remains in turmoil, a scene of terrorist suicide bombings and attacks on United Nations peacekeeping forces. Violence recently spilled over into a tumultuous presidential election.

Ms. Arby was buried near her family home in Bamako. She is survived by a daughter, five sons and 14 grandchildren. Her second husband died before her.

Ms. Arby was known for taking in and mentoring younger musicians. “I feel like I have lost my mother,” said Mahalmadane Traoré, 34, a drummer in her band.

Mr. Traoré said he had grown up singing along with recordings of Ms. Arby’s songs, which spanned most of Mali’s ethnic languages and traditions. With her death, he said, “It’s like a whole library has been burned.”

The singer and recording artist Djeneba Seck, in an interview after the funeral in Bamako, described Ms. Arby as a grand tree whose branches extended over a vast and divided country.

“She was like a big baobab,” she said. “She performed everywhere, and everybody listened to her music in Mali. In her songs she gave advice, and she sang about everyone.”

SOURCE: nytimes