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Tunisian Singer Emel Mathlouthi Breaks Away From World Music Stereotypes

The song’s music video opens on a windswept beach in Tunisia, where singer songwriter Emel Mathlouthi mourns the global crisis. Waves swell furiously around the shore as her voice echoes through the barren landscape, singing of the “silence of a life that once was breathing.” The sky glowers and flames erupt. Nature is ​seething.

Footsteps,” released ahead of Mathlouthi’s​ new album Everywhere We Looked Was Burning, is ​her first track sung entirely in English​ rather than her usual Arabic, a choice that was partly artistic, partly practical. Until now she has missed out on opportunities that might have been more forthcoming for a Western artist, she said. But the new album, which will be released next month​, ​​​​will move her work out of the somewhat narrow world music category and into the mainstream “where I can share my views with a wider public.”

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“I feel I still didn’t get from Western countries what I deserve,” says Mathlouthi, who has lived in New York since 2013​​ and Paris before that. She wants to break out of the box she finds herself in​, both​ as an Arab artist​, and the woman​ whose song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”) became an anthem for protesters in the ​2010–2011 revolution​. “I was lucky enough to have a historic moment,” said Mathlouthi, who sees her “voice of the revolution” reputation as a mixed blessing.

Road to Fame

It’s now nine years since she travelled back from Paris to perform once more in her home country. Arriving in Tunisia in December 2010, the streets were ​swirling with​ the​ news that a vendor had set himself on fire ​that​ day. On stage ​later​, Mathlouthi ignored a plea from concert organisers to s​tick with​ neutral songs, and called on the audience to support the oppressed before heading to the capital and joining the protests. Videos of her singing in the streets quickly went viral.

Since then, Mathlouthi has sung at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and performed at concerts worldwide, mesmerising audiences with songs that speak out against oppression in a voice of haunting, ethereal beauty. “Activism has always been part of my journey,” said Mathlouthi, who wants her music to “bring back force and empower the weakest.” But she also wants her work to be appreciated for its artistic merit and feels typecast as an Arab artist singing protest songs.

“At some point I rejected that side. … I realised I could only exist in a certain way in certain parts of the industry and couldn’t be recognised for real artistic values.” On the few occasions that she has shared the stage with bands including Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Om, she feels like she has briefly stepped over these barriers, but there’s still a long way to go before she is viewed beyond settings that foreground her exoticism, she said.

Emel Mathlouthi performed in Paris this summer in a concert following the Unesco-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture awards ceremony.
Emel Mathlouthi performed in Paris this summer in a concert following the Unesco-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture awards ceremony.

Finding Expression

Her third album may well be the turning point when it comes out next month. Written during a two-week period of intense inspiration in Woodstock, New York, Mathlouthi is confident she has created something extraordinary. For the first time, most of the lyrics will be in English, a decision she describes as an experiment. “English is a language that’s part of my life now,” she said.

It’s also the language she first started singing in as a teenager who was into grunge rock, goth music and heavy metal. “My first favourite songs and bands were in English so it was a very natural transition for me.” Her band back then performed covers of Nirvana and Metallica before she moved onto folk sounds and artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as well as Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin.

Tunisian authorities started to harass the young artist when she was in her early twenties. She received a warning phone call and her Facebook fan page was blocked. “I wasn’t allowed to be myself or do anything with my music.” Then, in 2007 her music was banned, so she left, traveling to Paris to hone her talent. “I’ve always believed very strongly in what I do because I can see the effect my songs have on people.”

Since the revolution she has performed three times in Tunisia but believes it will be a long time before she can tour the country, despite strong demand from audiences there. “I’m not very welcomed by the establishment,” said Mathlouthi, who remains active in the push for consolidating democracy in her country. “Unfortunately, it’s still extremely difficult to perform there.”

Tunisia, like many other countries in the Arab world, retains a tight grip on freedom of expression, despite its reputation as a place where democracy has succeeded to some extent. The recent cancellation of a concert by the popular indie rock band Mashrou Leila, which was due to perform at the Byblos ​I​nternational ​Festival in Lebanon this month, underscored what many believe to be a worsening situation for artists struggling against censorship in the region. “Music can be very influential. … It can give people reason to believe, reason to hope,” Mathouthi said.

She has seen this firsthand. Her first album, Kelmti Horra, released in 2012, was named after the song that became known as the “anthem of the Arab Spring.” In 2017, her second album, Ensen, was released by Partisan Records, a label with offices in both London and Brooklyn, N.Y., and featured the single “Ensen Dhaif” (“Human, Helpless Human”), which was named “best new track” by Pitchfork, the online American music magazine​ in 2016. The song is dedicated to the “people that have to carry the weight and all the struggles so that a very small percentage can enjoy the power,” she told Pitchfork at the time. It’s a sentiment that sits at the core of her work and flows through her latest album which speaks to “the weakest of us who are caught between malicious forces.”

Cause for Hope

The environment is another key theme on her new album. Nature is cast in dual roles, as a frightening force rising in retaliation against mankind, and a fragile figure that’s under attack. Human impact on the natural world, and the havoc wreaked on the most vulnerable by environmental catastrophes are recurrent ideas that Mathlouthi explores as she envisages a cycle of destruction and renewal, hopeful in the end that there is still a chance to go back and start again.

​This strand of positivity comes through in the celebration of earth’s power that flows through the songs. Sequestered in the Catskill Mountains​​, Mathlouthi and her team recorded the sounds of nature—capturing the crackle of fire, wind in the trees and the sounds of percussion on water, before weaving them into the music. It all felt very organic, very tribal,” Mathlouthi said. She also drew on the verses of some of her favorite poets, including T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke, whose imagery she finds “majestically dense and beautiful.”

The result is music that, as she puts it “transcends language.” Swept up in songs that build with percussive grandeur toward mankind’s self-inflicted crisis, her message is felt as much as it is heard. It’s an album that is borderless and universal, and one that she hopes will help to bring “a fresh and different image of artists from across the Arab world.”

Everywhere We Looked Was Burning will be released on September 27. Aside from the initial single, “Footsteps,” another song, “Rescuer,” has also been released from the album.


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