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The Metamorphosis of Emel Mathlouthi

Once only labelled as a 'revolutionary singer' Eihab Boraie meets the renowned Tunisian songstress during 3alganoob Festival and finds out she's much, much more.

Gracing the 3alganoob festival stage and captivating an audience in the vast windy desert adjacent to the picturesque shallow waters of Soma Bay, was none other than Tunisian revolutionary folk singer Emel Mathlouthi. Credited as one of the most powerful voices to emerge from the Arab Spring, Mathlouthi left audiences breathless showcasing her dynamic range and vocal prowess that haven’t been heard in Egypt in over two years. After successfully enthralling audiences, Mathlouthi was kind of enough to take the time to give some insights on her musical development and the challenges of staying true to her roots as she embarks on a new life in New York.

Mathlouthi's musical journey began in university in a band playing a genre of music that she is not typically known for. “I started really doing music around 2001-2002. We had a band at university and we were doing a lot of covers of Heavy Metal tracks. I think everybody starts there somehow because it’s very revolutionary,” explains Mathlouthi about her musical origins. It was in through these humble beginnings that Mathlouthi’s gained the confidence to take up the guitar and go it alone as a Folk artist, inspired by likes of iconic musical revolutionaries like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  “I started playing guitar and I wanted to be by myself and do my own stuff. I turned to Folk music and was completely drawn into the revolutionary scene in the states during the 60s and 70s,” she explains.

The decision to venture on her own and write politically driven songs before the revolutionary flame set ablaze an 'Arab Spring' is an example of musical bravery. Songs like Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunis) and Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free) connected with people but at the same time was met with plenty of powerful criticism determined to keep her silent. Given few opportunities, Mathlouthi moved to France where her music began garnering both international praise and respect back home.  

After Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire igniting the Arab Spring, Mathlouthi became a household name in Tunisia with videos of her songs going viral and becoming revolutionary anthems; a feat that Mathlouthi believes is more difficult for a woman to achieve. According to Mathlouthi “there’s a lot of injustice when you compare the success of El General, who’s a rapper, to not myself, but other women singers in Tunisia who are not maybe barely known. It seemed like El General and other males who got famous after the revolution, had an easier path because the territory for men is always easier to conquer.” The problem of crediting women for their craft is an issue that Mathlouthi believes spreads beyond Tunisia music scene. “When Björk comes up with a new album everyone is talking about who she’s working with. She doesn’t get enough credit. When you work with a male musician people tend to think that she’s the singer and he’s the producer. That’s what happened to her, but when you hear an album from Kanye West no one seems interested in asking who’s behind his production.”

For some, the label of being a revolutionary singer can be gift and a curse, as many labeled as such are expected to continue producing politically charged lyrics. “I’m very proud that my name was associated with a very important historical movement for Tunisians, Arabs and the entire world. I really am very proud of the revolution, but it’s true that sometimes people want you to talk about this and that and at some point you just have to realise that you’re actually a musician, and not a politician. It’s good for music to follow causes and social needs but there should be always a line separating artists from reporters,” believe Mathlouthi.

Looking to branch out from her roots, Mathlouthi has moved to New York from Paris in search of opportunities and musical inspiration. “I had a baby 9 months ago so that’s what brought me to New York but at the same time that’s what kept me at home a lot. There’s something in the city or in the air, something in the energy that gives you something different! There’s a different state of mind than there was in Paris; sometimes it's harder to collaborate and to find the right people but at the same time I feel something very special coming which will help shape my music in my upcoming work,” passionately describes Mathlouthi.

Veering away from Folk, Mathlouthi is exploring new sounds and experimenting with electronic music. Not one to be afraid of evolving, Mathlouthi‘s ethereal vocal range lends itself to many genres, and her willingness to expand outside her comfort zone in the pursuit of creating new sounds is the sign of a true artist. “I don’t know if my music is creative enough to bring something new to music in general but that’s my most precious wish,” Mathlouthi humbly mentions about her aspirations.

At the 3alganoob festival I expected to hear her play her Folk-inspired classic, but instead was treated to mix of Mathlouthi’s past efforts and future ambitions. Mixing Tunisian percussion with electronic minimalism, Mathlouthi’s soul-grabbing vocal range was on full display entrancing the audience. As a performer, Mathlouthi gave it her all moving like a mechanical doll while delivering a stirring and haunting rendition of Bjork’s All is Full of Love. Motivating her to bring her best to the concert was her love for performing in Egypt. As Mathlouthi puts it “I always feel like it’s very special to perform in Egypt because there’s such a strong energy and feelings in the crowd, even with the organisers. Last time I played in Cairo was in nice Theatre called Kasr El Nil, but this show was the first time I played outside in an open air festival. I would really like to perform more in Egypt and hope that with the next album I could do at least a small tour. Ive never performed in Alexandria or other cities so I would love to come back for another four or five gigs to let Egyptians know me more and know about my music.”

There is no date set for her next release, but Mathlouthi’s hopes to have something to deliver by the end of the year. As a musical journeywoman, Mathlouthi’s sound continues to evolve as she moves to new musical hubs. With her inspiring background, her ability to sing in multiple languages and her willingness to explore new sounds, Emel Mathlouthi is one album, or collaboration, away from breaking out of the mould of a revolutionary Tunisian artist and into a globally relevant, touring superstar. 

For the latest news on Emel Mathlouthi please visit her webpage by clicking here. 

Photography by: Shady Ismail


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