Friday, April 29, 2011

Desert Blues

Not the Oregon Desert, but the Sahara.

I have been meaning to tell you for over a month about how "Bransom" and I went to see Khaira Arby at the Aladdin Theater in SE Portland.

It started on a Saturday evening in early February, when I heard the following story on NPR. A Brooklyn band, The Sway Machinery, had traveled to Mali to participate in the Festival of the Desert, met Malian singer Khaira Arby, and collaborated on some songs. Their music, traditional Jewish music revamped to sound more like rock music, was interesting to someone like me, who likes "world music," but it was Khaira Arby's voice that, once I was home and out of my car, sent me to Google.

Ooh, I've never embedded a video on here before!

What a voice!

If you click on the link to the NPR story above, you can play two songs from The Sway Machinery's new album. "Gawad Teriamou" is the song I heard that made me think, "I need to hear more of this singer." From the radio program I learned that the song was written by Ms. Arby at the personal request of the president during the Tuareg uprising, to encourage people to seek peace. I don't know what the heck the words of the song are, but when I hear her sing, I feel like if I did understand the words, I would be driven by them to some kind of positive action, like seeking peace.

I wanted to buy a record or a CD of her music, and a few weeks later I turned to Google again. I did find several listings for Timbuktu Tarab, which seems to be the only CD available in America, but I kept searching because the song, "Aigna" is not on that CD.

That was how, instead of finding a recording of "Aigna," I found that she was touring in America. And so, on March 12th, after much pleading on my part, my boyfriend accompanied me to the Aladdin Theatre to see Khaira Arby and her band, with The Sway Machinery as opening act.

I don't always go to see live music because, while I enjoy it at time, I feel like I can't remember anything afterwards except, "I enjoyed that show." It's almost like something gets lost for me, as soon as I leave the venue. I just have a faint memory and whatever recordings I had before. But that wasn't the case with this show.

Even "Bransom" was glad we went. The Sway Machinery put on a great show. There is nothing bad to say about them, and I would probably go on at more length, but they were a bit overshadowed by the headliner. In person, Khaira Arby's voice was even more powerful than on the recordings. I really felt moved by it. I wanted to jump up and dance and go work for peace or or or...I didn't really know. If I understood Sonrhai or any of the four languages in which she sings, maybe I would. (I later learned that her songs do include some activism. I can't find the CD right now to list which songs are about what, but I can tell you that she sings out about many controversial things, especially women's issues. Timbuktu Tarab includes a song about the suffering of women and a song condemning female genital mutilation.)

And her band! The whole band was not with her, just two guitarists, a bass guitarist, and a drummer who sang backup vocals. She also had some Malian drums, including a giant calabash which at one point she stuck the microphone in and threw in the air. There was another drum that she kept pouring water on--from a prosaic plastic water bottle--so that when she played it, water shot up into the air like a misty fountain, turning blue in the lights of the stage. It was something. And so was her band! They were just a great rock band. There's not much else to say. I felt that if the non-English singing were removed from the equation, they would sound like an outstanding rock band from anywhere. I thought, this is music anyone could appreciate, not just fans of "world music."

Even "Handsome Man" appreciated it, who had to be begged to attend the show with me. He later said he was glad we went. Still, by the end of the show, he was tired and wanted to go home. So as soon as the encore was finished, I ran out to the lobby to buy a CD. I was determined to go home with a CD that night, since I didn't know how easy it would be to get a Khaira Arby CD anywhere else. I thought perhaps they might even sell something that did not carry.

Some of the guys from The Sway Machinery were at the merchandise table.

"Hi!" I said quickly, wanting to buy my CD and get out of there to respect that tired man who had gone to a show with me when he would rather have stayed home. But none of the CDs had prices on them. "How much is her CD?" I asked, pointing to Timbuktu Tarab.

The Sway Machinery guy said, "Well, this is our new CD and it's twenty dollars."

He paused, and as he began to tell me something else about their CD or another Sway Machinery CD, I began my sentence, inadvertently talking over him to say, "No, how much is this CD?"

"Fifteen dollars," he told me.

As I paid for my CD and waited for change, I started to feel terrible. I was just accidentally rude to the Sway Machinery guy! Who was very friendly and talented! Oh no! Meanwhile, my ride was waiting and yawning, and a line was forming, so I didn't have time to tell him all about how I only had enough money to buy one CD and I felt like theirs would be easier to find after the show I just sputtered, as I was walking away, "Thank you! You guys were great too!!!!"

They are from New York, so maybe they can tell the difference between, "East Coast in a hurry" and "rude." I hope.

In conclusion, I recommend checking out both The Sway Machinery and Khaira Arby. I listen to Timbuktu Tarab in the car, especially on rare sunny Portland days, with my sunroof open, driving across the Marquam Bridge. Songs like, "Salou" are the perfect accompaniment to that warm, sunshiney, happy-to-be-alive feeling.

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