The first time that Emel Mathlouthi made her voice heard was during the Arab Spring in January 2011, when she sang Dhalem (Tyrant). "You tyrant, kill me, I will write songs, hurt me, I will tell stories," sang this daughter of a university professor.
Mathlouthi covers Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen songs, and those of revolutionary Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam, who was imprisoned when Nasser and then Sadat were president. She also plays songs by the Lebanese oud player, Marcel Khalife, famous for setting the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish to music.
In 2012, she released her first album. She played the title track of Kelmti Horra (Freedom of Speech) during the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, which was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The artist who was compared perhaps too quickly to Joan Baez, offered us an album rooted in Tunisia with Arabic rhythm, pop sounds and heavy rock.
Her second album was released in 2017; Ensen sounds like a series of moving messages for suffering humanity. The album is a mix of styles, with pace and tense vocals. The American website Pitchwork made no mistake when it said that the Tunisian singer has "the most solid and stylish voice." This is a quality label for the singer whose music is rooted deeply in her Arabic origins and yet at the same time keeps renewing herself with new sounds and genres. Emel Mathlouthi portrays the new Arabic music, far from the old clichés, and doesn't fall into the catch-all category of "World Music", which basically means "non-Western" artists. She proves that the Arabic music scene, from Beirut to Casablanca, is as creative and abounding as those in Berlin, Manchester or Paris.
Last week, Mathlouthi took up another challenge by singing at the 53rd Carthage Festival, the symbol of Tunisian culture. She started sound checks and rehearsals on 9 August accompanied by an orchestra of 50 local and international musicians but, all of a sudden, the performance was cancelled; the organisers claimed that they didn't have the budget after all. The singer took to social media to express her confusion at the decision. She said that she had tried to get an explanation from the Minister of Culture, and tried to come up with some sort of solution, but she wasn't being listened to. What came out of this was the fact that obstacles were put in the way to hinder any cultural event in a country which relies on tourism and which could use an international programme to attract visitors over at a time when their numbers are declining.
Mathlouthi pointed out the contradiction of having an international career, based on two highly-praised albums and tours all over the world — not forgetting the Nobel Ceremony — and yet being unable to perform in her own country. Eventually the organisers backed-down, and she prepared to open on 12 August, with new musicians behind her.
I caught up with Emel Mathlouthi during rehearsals and she was still sore about the double standards being applied. "Tunisia welcomes Lebanese artists," she told me, "and I'm so happy for them, but why don't Tunisian artists get the same treatment?" She pointed out that she toured in Turkey and the way she was welcomed and promoted was spectacular. "I was really grateful. My music goes beyond myself, whether or not I'm happy about it, and it is part of my country's heritage. But it seems that officials here don't get it."
Many reasons spring to mind. Could she be "too international" and Tunisia has forgotten about her? She gives this some thought. "I think it has something to do with me directly, for Tunisia has artists who evolve here and leave the country and then come back after building up an international career, and they are always welcome. Tunisians, or at least some people in the country, seem to have a problem with those of its children who have left, as if they hold against them the fact that they left and had an international career but then dared to come back."
Another reason might be the fact that the organisers wanted to distance themselves from the events of January 2011, the Arab Spring with which she had been associated, perhaps unintentionally. Remembering that period is not pleasant for some, and maybe the revolutionary chapter needs to be closed; she did, after all, sing about this chapter in Tunisia's history.
She is honest about this: "That's probably a valid excuse, but I can't make people not associate me with the revolution, I can't un-label myself." Since then, she points out, she has worked on different projects. "My work has been praised in various countries; my music is available online to download. I mean, I haven't been singing the same old things ever since; I have evolved." There are, she insists, now different layers to her art. "I have to say that when it comes to cultural things the lack of curiosity in this country is killing me. I had to work hard to get recognised. Now I can tell that people have started to get curious about me and want to know more." She cites the example of the same old questions coming up in interviews. "All related to the revolution. I was stuck in a moment of my life. Nowadays, I feel that it happens less often and I get more questions about my art."
Emel Mathlouthi's orchestra and musical mix reflect her; they're a moving fusion. You hear French violinists "answering" those from Egypt. Sean, an American percussionist normally plays rock music; he has to mix this with Middle Eastern instruments such as the derbouka, riq and bendir. It's an East-West musical dialogue; a North Africa-Europe fusion. You'll hear a sintir along with an electric guitar, and a ney flute responding to oboes, bassoons and horns.
This melting pot resembles Emel herself. "When I moved to France at the beginning of my career, I rejected all the clichés. I refused to embody them. Then I matured I guess, and I made peace with myself, with my cultural heritage. That heritage became a curiosity for me more than an easy way to dip into the ethnic background. When I play at home, in Tunisia, people are waiting for these 'Tunisian' sounds, but I don't do that to please them; it's because I love those sounds."
Her performance is well-anticipated, by the Carthage Festival organisers as well as the largely Tunisian audience. They haven't seen Mathlouthi performing live for the past five years, and might have missed her artistic evolution. "I would like the Tunisian people to see my work. Before the revolution I knew that only a few would actually attend my concert and I wouldn't perform at big festivals either. But, then, I was still frustrated that the only thing people would remember was a song which became the revolution's anthem. I had plenty of them though… I need my art to be known in Tunisia. I need to create but these creations have to have a purpose."
Mathlouthi's creative energy filled the air during rehearsals. She worked with her regular musicians and the new group of last minute replacements; all were eager to be introduced to a new genre.
Her style requires a lot of work and she owns it: "The worst thing for me would be to become irrelevant, basic. When you are an artist you cannot afford to be basic. It means death. This is how I make my music, I need to feel it in my gut when I sing, when I compose, otherwise I wouldn't be able to perform, to share with the audience. Performing for the sake of it is easy, but when you want to share with your audience and create special moments with them you have to believe in what you are delivering."
When she was eventually live on stage, surrounded by her musicians, she wore a long, flared skirt which made her look like a modern-day whirling dervish, or a dislocated doll. Few of her songs were in English; most were in Arabic. A back-projection screen showed clips from videos and photographs. The audience and Emel were one. The lyricist of Kelmti Horra is Amine El Ghozzy. When he read the words like a poem the venue filled with emotion: "I am free and I'm not afraid. I know eternal secrets. I am the voice of the ones who don't give in. I'm free, my speech is free." And then the song began.
Emel Mathlouthi took an artistic risk on that evening. She could have thrown her audience completely off. However, she gambled otherwise and won. The audience wanted more; encore after encore. The show ended on a political note: "Happy women's and families' day." It was a reference to 13 August 1956 when Tunisian law abolished polygamy. It was a fitting finale.