She arrived in a black Jeep Wrangler, as if straight from the sands of the Sahara. Khaira Arby, draped in a spiraling purple shawl, stepped down out of the passenger seat and stood to the side as two equally elegant Malian singers maneuvered their way, slowly, out of the back seat. The three women looked like international royalty, which in retrospect shouldn't have been surprising. Arby is, after all, essentially the queen of desert rock.
A battered minivan soon pulled up, and out spilled five more musicians — a few more than we'd expected. Luckily, NPR Music has the best engineer in the world, Kevin Wait, who said not to worry; that he'd figure out a way to make it work. Chris Nolan, Arby's tour manager and the man who self-released her album Timbuktu Tarab in the U.S., at first couldn't believe how tiny the performance space really was. But once we showed Nolan and the band a video from Phoenix's appearance, they huddled up and quickly devised a gameplan.
Once we hit "record," everything fell into place. The group performed two songs from Timbuktu Tarab — "Salou" (a praise to Allah) and "Goumou" (a song about Mahoulid, an Islamic festival) — and "Cinquantenaire," which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Mali's independence. Arby, a quiet observer until the tape began to roll, unveiled her stunning vocal chops — and she needed them with seven other musicians and just one stereo mic. But she wasn't the only one to leave our audience in awe. Her young guitarist, Drahmane Toure, might have been the best we had in all year.
- Khaira Arby (lead vocals)
- Drahmane Toure (lead guitar)
- M'Barka Dembele (rhythm guitar)
- Aballow Yattara (ngoni)
- Mohamed Ag Mohamed (bass)
- Mahalmadane Abbanassane Traore (drums)
- Inna Diarra (background vocals)
- Abdrahmane Cisse (background vocals)
Michael Katzif and Mito Habe-Evans (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif, photo by Abby Verbosky/NPR