Watching Khaira Arby’s band perform Saturday night at Red Palace, it was easy to imagine an alternative history of the electric guitar. One where, say, Les Paul gets lost on the way to Timbuktu, wanders the desert till half-dead and is rescued by Tamashek herders who introduce him to their traditional instrument: a large six-string lute that plugs into a solar-powered amplifier.
Actually, the electric guitar was invented in California. But Arby’s four-piece band, which played two songs before its leader arrived onstage, has thoroughly assimilated it. Guitarists Abdramane Toure and M’Barka Dembele played chiming, tightly interlocked riffs that moved forward and roundabout simultaneously; the music’s modal structure and trebly timbres suggested both African and Asian varieties of trance music.
The energy level jumped when Arby appeared in a flowing, elaborate blue-and-red robe and matching headdress, yet the music didn’t change much. Arby is an ample woman, but she doesn’t possess the sort of earthy voice associated with larger performers. The “Nightingale of Mali’s North” flutters through her upper registers, hitting notes that are piercing yet pure. While her voice was commanding, it meshed with the instruments. In such tunes as “Goumou” and “Wadio,” both the voice-guitar interplay and Arby’s vocal exchanges with Dembele and drummer Mahalmadane Traore were forms of call and response.
A cousin by marriage of the late guitar master Ali Farka Toure, Arby has diverse influences. She has been accompanied by traditional Malian instruments and has performed with the Sway Machinery, an American band that draws on Jewish cantorial music. At Red Palace, Arby and her group employed only Western instruments, save for calabash shells that were used for percussion and to collect the currency with which exultant fans showered the musicians, as is customary in West Africa.
Occasionally during the 85-minute set, Abdramane Toure shifted the tone by hitting a wah-wah pedal for a noisy solo that channeled the style of another ancestral spirit, Jimi Hendrix. The group also employed reggae rhythms generally as a sort of an undercurrent.
Yet Arby and her quartet never sounded as if they were imitating Westerners. The music they made was their own, dynamic and sweeping to absorb a world of styles. It was enough to cause a listener to imagine an alternative history of all sorts of stuff.