LONDON: Emel Mathlouthi no longer wants to be categorized as “the voice of the Tunisian revolution.” For now she’s done with looking back on the early days of the uprising, when her song “Kelmti Horra” went viral.
The track, whose title means “My Word is Free,” includes the lines “I am free and my word is free ... I am the soul of those who do not forget / I am the voice of those who do not die.”
It became an anthem for the protests sweeping through streets in cities across the country before they spilled out across the region, marking the birth of the Arab Spring.
“That was all a long time ago,” said Mathlouthi, who grew up in a Tunis suburb, but left in 2008 to pursue a musical career away from the oppressive regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after the government banned her music from Tunisian airwaves.
Having discovered her voice at 15, Mathlouthi had been producing steadily more subversive material, expressing her frustration through songs such as “Dhalem” (“Tyrant”), and performing in public, despite the risks. “It made me feel really powerful,” she recalls.
Now living in New York with her husband and daughter, and Paris prior to that, she has attracted steadily larger crowds and been described as the “Fayrouz of her generation.” She performed before global audiences at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony
in 2015, an experience that she is quite rightly “proud of.”
But more interesting to Mathlouthi, who speaks with refreshing frankness and refuses to be drawn into discussions on chapters of her career that she considers complete, is the journey ahead.
“I don’t want to only be defined as someone associated with the revolution,” she told Arab News in a telephone interview ahead of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival in the UK this month, where she is one of the headline acts.
“I want to create music that’s on the frontline, not only of what it’s standing for, but also the quality of what people are listening to,” she said.
Her voice, searing, haunting and agonizingly beautiful, captures the suffering and devastation that her country has seen since Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in front of a government building in December 2010. A series of uprisings followed across the region, the effects of which continue to be felt across the Middle East and North Africa.
But while Mathlouthi’s Arabic lyrics “speak for themselves,” it doesn’t matter, she says, whether or not her audiences grasp the meaning of the words.
“For me that’s not the most important thing in art and music. Sometimes it’s even better if you don’t understand the lyrics.” That way, she said, the music can “transport you.”
With the literal meaning of the song subsumed, the experience of the music is “deeper” and “more honest,” a way “to let yourself be taken by the music and the power in it,” she explained.
Her upcoming album, however, will be recorded in English, the language she started singing in as a teenager while listening to the likes of American folk singer Joan Baez and doing covers of grunge rock group Nirvana and heavy metal band Metallica. It was music that channeled the rebellious spirit she inherited from her father, who antagonized the regime with his union activism.
“It was the language I first sang in and I felt like I needed to connect with that part of myself,” she told Arab News.
Writing her latest album, she is immersing herself in the poetry of T.S.Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke and John Ashbury, delving into “the most beautiful art form that exists” to seek inspiration for new songs exploring the theme of empathy.
Reading was an important part of family life for Mathlouthi, who remembers getting her first library membership aged nine, instilling the early fascination with words that inspire her evocative lyrics today. “I always like things when their poetry resonates in me,” she said.
The enveloping intensity of her sound, which combines the rock, psychedelic-folk influences of her youth with experimental, cinematic and electronic beats, fusing elements of traditional North African music with contemporary Western trip-hop, has entranced audiences in the Middle East, Europe and the US.
After watching her at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and concert in 2015, American television presenter Jay Leno, the event’s host, said that she was the first Arabic-language singer to catch his attention.
On stage, the English words lit up across the wall as she sang, backed by a full orchestra and choir before a captivated crowd waving illuminated smartphones in time to her soaring vocals.
“A very important moment was happening for the audience and for myself,” she recalled.
“Being there as someone who’s coming from a different background than the usual performers made it a very special experience.”
Mathlouthi, who is in her 30s, doesn’t situate her sound within the traditions of Tunisian music. Instead, it represents “a new path for music that’s coming from the Arab region,” drawing on the many resources that have influenced her over the years.
Speaking to Arab News, she described the breadth and variety of music from the region, something she hopes her upcoming performance in Liverpool will encourage Western audiences to appreciate.
“I just hope that everyone will follow me through the different voyages during the concert … and let themselves be open to new experiences and discovery without building certain expectations,” she said.
Other popular performers in the 20th-anniversary line-up for the festival, which showcases Arab arts and culture in the northern English city, include Arab electronic hip-hop group 47SOUL and trailblazing duo from the occupied Golan Heights, TootArd.
A performance of “The Shroud Maker,” a satire by Palestinian writer and director Ahmed Masoud, a piece inspired by Liverpudlian-Yemeni poet Amina Atiq and works by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari, are among the other highlights at the event, which celebrates Liverpool’s diverse Arab community.
Mathlouthi’s set will include some of her favorites from her latest album “Ensen” (“Human”). The album was recorded in seven different countries, an expression of the collaborative spirit Mathlouthi brings to her music.
“I don’t think you can record an album in one single place,” she said, adding that her ideal environment to record is anywhere that’s in nature. “There’s no one specific place but I need the quiet. I need to be secluded to be able to reach inside myself.”