Beyond 'Protest Music' in the Arab World... and Beyond

Emel Mathlouthi

The four representatives of Tunisia's Nobel Peace Prize were there that night. So were members of the Norwegian royal family, and even Jay Leno. They joined 6,000 others who squeezed into the Oslo Spektrum Arena for Norway’s 2015 Nobel Peace Prize concert, where they waved light after light in the air as Emel Mathlouthi sang her song “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free).” A full orchestra accompanied Mathlouthi, whose words were translated from Arabic into English and spelled out in lights behind her:

I am those who are free and never fear
I am the secrets that will never die
I am the voice those who would not give in
I am free and my word is free

This was Mathlouthi as the Arab world’s protest singer. This was Mathlouthi as a Tunisian national and exile who -- like her country’s Nobel winners -- had persevered into a position of prominence and impact. Mathlouthi’s song helped drive the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia, and since, she’s become a musical gauge of the Arab world’s state of affairs.

She wrestles, though, with the “protest singer” label.

“My music certainly has concerned aspects that have a very powerful insight into the troubles of the human being," she says in a phone interview from New York, just weeks after performing at Stanford. "I choose to describe myself as someone who’s really concerned, and who’s really digging into what’s wrong with humanity. I never wanted to write exclusively about love. And that shouldn’t put me in a category where I can’t reach anywhere."

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But, she says, "Once some people put the category of ‘political’ on you -- at the same time it gets you a lot of importance and respect, on the other hand you kind of lose your place in the music square. You stop being considered as a musician, a singer, a sound creator.” Of her 2015 concert, she says: “It was a very nice way to close that chapter.”

In fact, one year after that Dec. 11 concert in Oslo, everything has changed for Mathlouthi, including her relationship to Tunisia -- and to her music. She’s moved from Europe to New York, where she’s living with her husband and a young daughter. And her new album, Ensen (Human), which she made with a flurry of producers from France, Iceland, Sweden, and the United States, including one-time Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurosson, is a departure from her first album. It’s more dense.  And more complex.

Both albums are defiant and emphatic, but where the musical layers of “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)” hue closely to traditional scales and instruments, Mathlouthi’s February 2017 release mixes in heavy electronica, and scales up the theatrics and the noise. The video for the song “Ensen Dhaif (Human, Helpless Human)” has Mathlouthi dancing with two bare-chested naked men whose heads are covered in red, mesh bags that resemble torture sacks. Scenes of flesh and shadow bookend the video, which has Mathlouthi shouting and gyrating amid the drum thumps and North African instruments that give “Ensen Dhaif (Human, Helpless Human)” its dramatic tension.

The Arab Spring revolutions, which germinated in Tunisia in December 2010, had an exacting impact on the Middle East and North Africa, and Mathlouthi’s music explores the chaos and pathos that exist in the world. Her music is not exclusively “Arab music,” even though she sings in Arabic and features Arab instrumentation.

Mathlouthi, who’s in her early thirties, is part of the same Arab diaspora that includes Juilliard-trained pianist Rami Khalife, who also eschews rigid categorizations like “world music.” Khalife is performing with his brother, percussionist Bachar Khalife, and their father, the longtime oudist Marcel Khalife, on Thursday, Dec. 15 at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater.

The Khalifes’ new album, Andalusia of Love, begins with Rami’s plaintive, emotive piano work – a spare and beautiful introduction that has much in common with French composer Erik Satie’s most elegant works. Marcel Khalife’s scintillating oud finishes the song, which segues into an album of what Rami Khalife calls “East meets West.”

Pianist Rami Khalife (left), oudist Marcel Khalife (center), and percussionist Bachar Khalife
Pianist Rami Khalife (left), oudist Marcel Khalife (center), and percussionist Bachar Khalife

He’s talking about the album’s musical imprimatur -- of its overlaying scales that reference jazz, Western classical music, traditional Arabic music, and even the edges of experimental music. But Rami Khalife is also talking about the album’s words, which are taken from the poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who saw Muslim Spain (or “Al-Andalus”), which Muslims oversaw from 711 to 1492, as a kind of Golden Age, where both independence and co-existence were possible. As Darwish once wrote, according to Arabic-to-English translations of his work, where he references the last Muslim state of Granada:

Granada is made of gold,
of silken words woven with almonds, of silver tears
in the string of a lute. Granada is a law unto herself:
it befits her to be whatever she wants to be: nostalgia for
anything long past or which will pass.

Marcel Khalife, who composed Andalusia of Love, has often used Darwish’s words to fill out his songs. The new album is a remembrance of the past, a tribute to Darwish (who died in 2008), and a longing for better times -- for co-existence at a time of challenging times. If a plea for peace is political, then Andalusia of Love is that plea, says Rami Khalife.

“Co-existence through music is an act of politics,” says Khalife, who was born and raised in Lebanon before leaving for France in the wake of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which lasted until 1990. “Music can be a form of expression that can carry ideas of resistance.”

Speaking by phone before the start of the Khalifes’ United States tour, Khalife says that the family will perform songs that are even more experimental than those on Andalusia of Love. "We are performing songs that are rebellious and have some sort of revolution in it, and trying to bring East to West because of its many influences," he says. "The world would be much more peaceful if people had access to more culture.”

The Khalife’s Dec. 15 concert will bring out a mix of people, including Arabic speakers who will recognize every word, and those who are there to enjoy the melding of musical cultures. They won’t need translations: Mathlouthi says it’s OK if audiences don’t fully understand the exact meaning of her songs.

In this way, she has much in common with the Khalifes. In fact, she has been a longtime fan of Marcel Khalife’s compositions, even singing them in concerts. “He’s a great composer, and I always felt very inspired by him, because we share this big influence from European classical music," she says. "That’s what I really like about him. And now he’s exploring a lot of newfound experimentations. It’s very humbling, and interesting to see him never getting tired of prospecting new horizons.”

Tunisia’s leaders once tried to ban her music. She’s freer now. And like Rami Khalife, she’s expanding and experimenting with her music away from her native country -- using music as a way of connecting with home but also engaging more with the greater world. This is the time when musicians from Arab countries are freer than ever to take a chance. More people are listening to them. More people are open to what a newer generation of globalized musicians has to say, even if those musicians challenge an audience’s expectations.

When Marcel Khalife first began performing with his sons, some of his longtime fans balked at the “East and West” musical mix. But, says Khalife, “You cannot do something that everyone will like. That’s not the point anyway. We try not to be in a comfort zone. We try to risk our art, to risk ourselves on stage, to deliver something new to the audience.”

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Rami Khalife performs with his brother, percussionist Bachar Khalife, and their father, the longtime oudist Marcel Khalife, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15 at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater. Tickets ($35 and up) and more info here.  

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