Three electric guitarists stand behind Khaira Arby on the cover of her new release, "Timbuktu Tarab," and the piercing tones of their instruments are integral to the great Malian singer's ebullient sound. But the album, Arby's U.S. breakthrough, is not designed for the crossover market. It doesn't traffic in synthesizers, disco beats or duets with Western stars.
Arby comes from a mixed Songhai/Berber background, which is reflected in her eclectic approach. She uses four languages on this album, sometimes alternating during a single tune. "Salou," a praise song to Allah, is entirely in Arabic; "Feriene," which condemns female circumcision, slips between Bambara and Songhai. She also sings in Tamashek, the language of Tinariwen, whose slippery blues-rock vamps resemble those of Arby's band.
However dense the instrumental interplay, Arby's singing dominates. Her voice soars above the groove, establishing motifs that both the musicians and backing singers embroider. While call-and-response vocals are the album's most common form of counterpoint, Arby is prepared to trade licks with anyone, including her percussionist. The voice-drum duets that punctuate "Goumou" are sheer exhilaration. Malian melodic scales do resemble those of American blues, but to call Arby's style "desert blues" misses something essential: her music's infectious joy.