Khaira Arby: Fighting Jihadists with Music

In Mali, she is the grande dame of the country’s exceptionally rich music scene: Khaira Arby – aka The Nightingale of the North. Mrs Arby is celebrated throughout her country and the world; for many of her fans, she also embodies Mali’s irrepressible spirit. Her haunting rendition of traditional Tuareg songs brings tears of joy to audiences as she plucks at the chords of national remembrance with tales of salt mines and camel caravans to the sound of electric guitars and the ngoni, Mali’s traditional lute.

In 2012, the singer had to flee for her life as a motley army of secessionists and jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda overran her native Timbuktu, declaring the historic city at the southern end of Trans-Saharan trade routes capital of Azawad, their short-lived state. After the takeover, rebel leaders immediately ordered the arrest of Mrs Arby, promising to cut out her tongue if captured. A spokesperson for Ansar Din (Followers of God) explained that “Satan’s music” would be banned and replaced by Koranic verses as per the will of God.

“Declaring war on music wasn’t a particularly smart move of the jihadists in a country that thrives on it,” remembers Mrs Arby who fled to the relative safety of the capital Bamako. One of the world’s poorest countries, Mali is home to an astonishingly vibrant music scene and considered the true birthplace of blues. The country was an unlikely candidate for an Islamic state organised on the ultra-conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia Law.

Shaped by a unique, mystical, and gentle brand of Sufi Islam mixed with animist traditions, Malian society instinctively rejected the jihadists’ uncultured barbarism. “I have no clue what these people actually wanted. What I do know is that their religious police raided my recording studio and smashed about $150,000 worth of instruments and recording equipment.”

Religious strife also disrupted the annual Festival of the Desert which offered a stage to musicians from far and wide, including Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Buffet, Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, and – of course – Bono of U2 fame who performed alongside, and jammed with, the best Malian artists. Since its expulsion from Timbuktu, the event travels the world as the Festival-in-Exile, a self-described loudspeaker of tolerance and resilience.

Once known as the city of poetry and learning, Timbuktu – situated on the upper reaches of the Niger River and the southern shores of the Sahara Desert – only recently emerged from years of sectarian violence, trying to recapture its lustre as an outpost of culture, scholarship, and plurality. Music too has returned to Timbuktu, as has Khaira Arby. In early January, the singer performed for the first time in six years in the city at a heavily guarded venue packed to capacity with thousands of her fans. The music flowed and the tears followed.

Mrs Arby’s return was made possible by Timbuktu Renaissance – an initiative of the Brookings Institution and the government of Mali – which aims to help rebuild the fabled city by leveraging its culture and heritage to jump-start development. The organisation offers financial support to creative industries and the arts, including literature, architecture, music, and film.

Praised for her robust voice and unambiguous lyrics, Khaira Arby sings in the languages of the desert – Sonrhai, Tamaschek, Bambara, and Arabic – aiming for maximum social impact and blasting practices such as forced marriages and female genital mutilation. In order to pursue a career in music, she divorced a controlling husband who wanted to keep her locked up. Ever since she has wondered why, in a country of beautiful women, men go to war.

Whilst in forced exile, Mrs Arby toured the world with performances in Europe and in North America. A cousin of legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) – one of Africa’s most-renowned musicians and, according to documentary-filmmaker Martin Scorsese, carrier of the blues’ original DNA – Khaira Arby represents a powerful force that now helps resurrect and reconcile a country and a nation ravaged by war, but by no means defeated by it.

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