“In France I found my Tunisian identity”- an interview with Emel Mathlouthi

Antwerp – It looks like Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, had a successful transition to democracy. Ben Ali has fled the country and the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won the elections in October 2011. They allegedly take Turkey as an example; a secular democracy governed by a party with an Islamic identity. Lately, however, there have been tensions between Islamicists and secular liberals and the economy is still very fragile. In April the government puts a ban on demonstrations which generated new protests (New York Times). This weekend at the Sfinks Festival in Boechout, Belgium, I spoke to the Tunesian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi, currently living in France, about Tunisia and her music.

by Charlie Crooijmans

What can you tell us about the current situation of Tunisia?

“We are still waiting for the next elections. They (Ennahda, CC) are supposed to work on the future constitution. Officially freedom of speech is not a problem, but I think that they are trying to pass their ideas to some newspapers, to some sitcoms and the television and something like that. They want to control easily the population with the fact that they are a religious party. It is easy, you know, all these people who have no power, no studies, to transform them in defenders of religion.”

On your website you say that you became a victim of intimidation and you were threatened with a ban as a result of your activities in student unions. What was your status as a performer?

“In Tunisia I had a small audience of leftist people, intellectuals, journalists and students. When I went to Paris, I started doing some concerts, recorded a lot of songs and put them on the internet. This time Tunisian youth started to know about me, about my struggle. I was already doing this in Tunisia since 2002. I went to France (in 2007, CC) because I couldn’t do the music I wanted to do. I didn’t have the stage to do my music. And as an artist you have to be on stage, you have to participate in festivals, you have to record albums, record songs and I couldn’t do all that.”

What did you learn from your musical heroes, the Lebanese bard Marcel Khalife, the poet Mahmoud Darwish and Lebanese diva Fairouz?

“Also Chiekh Imam from Egypt (political singer-songwriter 1918 – 1995, CC) and I learned also from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. From all these people I learned the courage, their music give me a lot of strength and hope, and it touches me very deep and it inspired me to do what I did all these years, to write my own songs. They give me the sensitivity I needed to compose nice melodies around my lyrics.”

Your music is very modern with psychedelic rock, electronics, trip hop – the concert at Sfinks was really powerful with a stunning light show. What is the Tunisian voice in it?

“I was searching for the Tunisian style, my Tunisian identity, for many years. When I was still in Tunesia I was hating all that is Tunisian, because of the repression and the frustration. The dictatorship makes you hate your identity, your flag. You can not be a patriot anymore. I think I started to build and discover my identity when I went to France. I discovered that I was different. I was really Tunisian. I didn’t know in what way, but is was very deep. For this album (Kelmti Horra, CC) I searched some records of popular music, because popular music is the heart of every culture. Folklore and popular music with the traditional drums, costumes and the traditional instruments. I wanted to have the free way of how these people do this kind of music, which is called el mezwed. They don’t study music. They have rhythm since they are young, the music is in their veins. This freedom is very necessary for me because I am talking about freedom. There is freedom about doing music in the way you learn music, practice music. So there are no rules. It’s not like, it has to be like this, just how you feel it. I like this thing of our popular music and they have a very specific way of playing the drums, I wanted this strength inside my music. Especially if I melt it with another, modern sound.”

Earlier this year you released your first album Kelmti Horra. The album’s title track became a kind of alternative national anthem. How come?

“The title means “my word is free” and is not specifically meant to Tunisia, or the Arabic countries, but to the whole world. The video I made traveled through the world, because the young are connected to the internet. This song touches a lot. It’s always my final message at a concert so it can stay in the heads of the people to make them united. When I was at a demonstration in Tunisia they ask me to sing it on the street.”

My Word is Free (Kelmti Horra)

We are free men who are not afraid,
we are the secrets that never die,
and we are the voice of those who resist,
in their chaos, we are the flash of light.
I am the right of the oppressed,
snatched up by dogs
looting the daily bread
and closing doors to shut off the rush of ideas.

I am part of the free and unafraid,
I am the secrets that never die,
I am the voice of those who do not give up,
I am free and my word is free.

I am free and my word is free.
Don’t forget the price of the bread,
don’t forget he who sowed in us the seed of sorrow,
don’t forget he who betrayed us.

I am part of the free and unafraid,
I am the secrets that never die,
I am the voice of those who do not give up,
I am the secret of the red rose,
a redness that was worshiped for years,
and whose perfume was buried
in a day.
it came out, its veil ablaze
to summon all free men.

I am a star in the dark,
I am a thorn in the oppressor’s throat,
I am the wind, fueled by the fire,
I am the soul of those who do not forget,
I am the voice of those who do not die.

From iron, I make clay,
with which I shape a new idyll
Which becomes birds
which becomes houses
which becomes the wind and the rain.

I am the free of the united world,
from cartridges I rise.

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