Emel Mathlouthi
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Emel Mathlouthi

New York City, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2010 | MAJOR

New York City, New York, United States | MAJOR
Established on Jan, 2010
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"Press Quotes"

“… a gentle firebrand, whose song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word is Free”) became the anthem of the Arab Spring, made an enthralling New York debut.” Jon Pareles – NY Times

“…dirty trip hop beats, a mournful Russian choir, Sinead O’Connor confessionalism. It’s a smart, moody, intimate record…This should be cult listening beyond the world music crowd.” Tom Jackson – fRoots (UK)

“… a self-assured outward-looking individual debut from a girl from the Tunis suburbs… Mathlouthi’s voice has sharp stillness, her vocals inventive.” Nathaniel Handy – Songlines ‘Top of the World’

“This debut twists together Arabic roots with western flavours… The mix works well on stand-outs ‘Dhalem’ an ‘Ma Lkit’ … A powerful new voice.” 4 Stars. The Observer.

“…it’s the astonishing range and sensuousness of Mathlouthi’s voice that is most compelling.” Alfred Hickling - AustraliaCultureBlog - Various


"Revolutionary voice"

Emel Mathlouthi was on tour in Tunisia when the country’s uprising began in December 2010. That week, the singer, who became a powerful voice of the Jasmine revolution, gave a concert in the coastal city of Sfax. “We didn’t know his name yet,” she says of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable seller whose desperate protest triggered the Arab spring. “But I dedicated my songs to the young man who’d set himself alight, and the town that was fighting for dignity. Nobody was talking that way on a public stage.”

Tunis-born, Mathlouthi had spent the previous three years in Paris as a singer, composer and guitarist, with a repertoire that vented a yearning for freedom, particularly among the young. When the nervous concert organiser in Sfax implored her not to sing protest songs, she said: “How can I do that? I don’t have any others. The concert will be 10 minutes.”

Mathlouthi and her band, along with other outspoken Tunisian musicians, such as Hamada Ben Amor, better known as the rapper El Général, played a part in breaking years of silence. They assailed what she describes in “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” (Poor Tunisia) as a fear taught in school and “embedded in their minds”.

I meet the 30-year-old Mathlouthi in the Renaissance hotel at London’s St Pancras station, the day after the launch concert in Paris for her first full album, Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free). Small and striking in a short black lace dress and sturdy boots, lavish curls tied back, she says her spirits have been revived amid the hotel’s soaring, neogothic architecture. Performing later with violinist Zied Zouari at the Rich Mix café-bar in Shoreditch, east London, she is mesmerising, unleashing a stunningly assured vocal range, from deep, breathy whispers and mellifluous sweetness to full-throated power. If her sincerity evokes folk legend Joan Baez, a big influence on Mathlouthi, she can strike the guitar with a force that owes more to her rock heroes such as Radiohead.

While her finely rendered Middle Eastern melodies, with pained lyrics of separation and longing, recall the Lebanese diva Fairouz, Mathlouthi is less romantic than revolutionary. She sings mainly in classical Arabic or Tunisian dialect (with forays into English and French). Her self-produced album marries a lyrical purity of voice with western strings, Maghrebi percussion and electronica – a driving mix oversimplified as “Arabic trip-hop”. In fact, the urban, Mediterranean meld is more original. She inhabits, and makes her own, elements from rock and folk, fado and flamenco, Celtic and Tzigane, north African gnawa and rai. There is even a Russian choir.

“I don’t want to focus on a specific style but to express myself naturally,” she says. “My music is a mirror for all these influences.” Partly inspired by cinema (she admires Iranian films and British director Ken Loach), her aim is to “create atmosphere and a universe around every song, not just voice and a couple of instruments”.

Each song develops like a narrative. Dedicated to those who died to free her country, the album includes tracks that formed a soundtrack to the revolution. Yet while there are samples of Arab spring chants and President Ben Ali’s speech before he fled to Saudi Arabia, the songs were written before 2009. “Ethnia Twila” (The Road is Long) is a nostalgic dirge with an echoing background beat, inspired by Pink Floyd and psychedelia, written when she arrived in France in 2007.

Born in 1982, she was five when Ben Ali’s 23-year rule began. Although she grew up in the Tunis suburb of Ibn Sina “open-minded and free to think”, dictatorship struck the family. Her father, a leftwing radical in 1960s Paris, lost his job teaching history at the elite National School of Administration over trade union activities. “It was hard for my mum, working full time at primary school. My father wanted to be a professor in the university of Tunis but they never let him because he always wanted to say what he thought – he didn’t like the corruption of minds.”

Along with her father’s classical and jazz recordings, she admired his vintage protest songs, from Bob Dylan to Victor Jara. She was captivated by the blind Egyptian troubadour Sheikh Imam, whom she sees as a proto-rapper – “very free in his way of expressing subjects and composing”.

Studying graphic design at Tunis University, she found release and rebellion in rock, founding her own band, Idiom. She switched to Arabic after adapting songs by the Lebanese Marcel Khalifé from oud to guitar. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish inspired her song “Dhalem” (Tyrant), whose sweet transcendence builds into loud defiance. “I wrote that, even if you kill or imprison me, I will write songs. I’ll be eternal, and time will erase you.”

In 2007 Mathlouthi fled an atmosphere in which creativity was stifled. “I couldn’t reach media or festivals, and if I’d stayed, I might have been stopped.” She wrote the album’s title track that year, to lyrics written for her by Amin El Ghozzi. It was first performed, with a symbolism she underlines, at the Bastille, and became a rallying cry in Tunisia via an online video. She was at the first protests in Tunis in December 2010. “Everybody was turned inward and afraid. As an artist, I wanted to show my face and my support.”

As she was leaving for the airport, her Facebook fan page was erased in a crackdown on cyber dissent. Her instant response was to create another: “My only existence as an artist was on the internet. What I do takes importance as I share it with my compatriots.” When Ben Ali fled, she sang at a tribute for martyred protesters. Only then was Kelmti Horra openly broadcast on Tunisian radio.

One year on, her song “14 January” was released online, to mark the tyrant’s fall. “That was one of the best days. Everybody was together on the street, all ages. They’ll never be so united again.” She voted for a “progressive party” in elections last October but is sceptical of politicians’ concessions to Islamist parties. She does not see women’s rights as under immediate threat, saying Tunisian women are very powerful (“If not for my mother, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now”). Yet, while a “revolution in the mind” has taken place, “it’s not over, for women or for the country.”

‘Kelmti Horra’ is out on World Village – Harmonia Mundi. Emel Mathlouthi plays at a free francophone festival in Trafalgar Square, London, Saturday! - Financial Times


"Cairo’s Art Festival Aims to Keep the Revolution Going"

Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi’s song “My Word is Free” became an anthem of the Arab uprising.

Cairo’s once legendary art scene perished from the mid-1970s onwards, as the country’s succession of dictatorships grew more iron fisted and self-censorship became the norm. Grandiose concerts that consistently drew larger audiences than presidential speeches gave way to state-sponsored art festivals that were no more than “propaganda tools,” D-CAF’s organizers say.

“Dictatorship is not just about political oppression but making people lose hope, their identity and culture. An environment of fear makes everything die. When the revolution happened and we took off the lid and put our flashlight inside, it was all rotten,” Mr. El Attar says. “We’re now vomiting decades of mediocrity and fear.”

Egypt is slowly losing that apprehension two years after its masses took to the streets to topple President Hosni Mubarak, reclaiming public spaces lost to them in the dictator’s police state.

The festival brought together about 130 artists, a mix of local and international, including regional performers who have become the voice of their revolutions at home.

Emel Mathlouthi – whose song “My Word is Free” became the signature of Tunisia’s uprising — was one of the festival’s headline events. She took the stage, belting out politically-risqué lyrics that would have landed her in jail just a few years ago.

And Ms. Mathlouthi, like her peers, used the festival to keep alive the Middle East’s unfinished revolutions, speaking out against the Islamists that have emerged from Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutions and their crackdowns on freedom of expression.

“Oh Egypt! Oh Egypt! Armor yourself with roses…against the Brotherhood and against injustice!” Ms. Mathlouthi sang as the crowd screamed in surprise at her brazen criticism of Egypt’s ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptians and Tunisians worry that the new post-revolutionary governments that have emerged have simply traded one dictatorship for another. Egypt’s Brotherhood-led government has been criticized for clamping down on media freedoms, recently arresting a prominent satirist.

But the new ability to publicly denounce regional governments still surprises Ms. Mathlouthi, although she worries it won’t last.

“I never dreamed that my songs would be sung on the streets,” she says. “For more than 50 years, we have been ruled by dictators. We aren’t used to deciding for ourselves…but the revolution is not finished.”

The festival hosted artists like Ms. Mathlouthi in the crumbling remnants of downtown Cairo’s once robust art scene, in derelict hotels and theaters where legends like Umm Kalthoum took stage some 40 years ago. Ms. Mathlouthi sang at the infamous Qasr El Nil theater, a thousand-seat venue where the wealthy would pack in for sold out shows.

But Qasr El Nil, like the festival’s other venues, has fallen into disrepair as Egypt’s succession of dictatorships cracked down on political freedoms, consequently stifling the arts. The majestic concerts the theater once hosted soon gave way to blockbuster screenings and seats with the stuffing bursting out and whose metal frames grew jagged and lopsided with neglect.

“We’re squatters, trying to embed or build up on the past of these places and build above it another layer,” said Enrica Camporesi, D-CAF’s communications manager.

The festival’s main sponsor, Ismailia for Real Estate Investments, has been buying up Cairo’s architectural relics to refurbish them, while hosting cultural events to gentrify the downtown area. Venues like the Hotel Viennoise — a testament to Cairo’s more glorious days as a cultural hub — hosted a laser art exhibition in the building’s derelict rooms.

“Egyptians view downtown with nostalgia, they view it as the remnants of a better time, the time of the monarchy or [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser,” said Karim Shafei, the chief executive of Ismailia. “We can save the buildings and urban fabric by bringing cultural events and by private investment. The government is not going to spend the money to save downtown, it’s simply not their priority.” - The Wall Street Journal


"Emel Mathlouthi: Kelmti Horra – review"

"Here's a World Diva with a difference. Mathlouthi's lament for her homeland, 'Ya Tounes Ya Meskina' (Poor Tunisia), became a soundtrack to last year's uprising, along with the celebratory 'Kelmti Horra' (My Word is Free). Arriving after several years of exile in France, this debut twists together Arabic roots with western flavours – some rock (Mathlouthi plays guitar and cites Joan Baez as an influence) but mostly cavernous trip-hop. The mix works well on stand-outs 'Dhalem' and 'Ma Lkit', where Mathlouthi's striking vocals find most melody; elsewhere, the understandably serious mood of protest and sadness flatlines somewhat. A powerful new voice, none the less." - The Guardian


"Voice of Arab Spring Offers Defiance and Melody Emel Mathlouthi at the French Institute’s Tunisia Festival"

The Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi, a gentle firebrand whose song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”) became an anthem of the Arab Spring, made an enthralling New York debut at the French Institute Alliance Française on Wednesday night. In Arabic she sang, “We are free men who are not afraid/We are the secrets that never die/And we are the voice of those who resist.” The song has a forthright, steadily rising melody in a major key; it’s easy to imagine it being sung by Joan Baez, one of Ms. Mathlouthi’s early role models. On Wednesday she began it quietly, almost like a lullaby, and carried it toward a clarion fervor, moving between Western and Arabic modes and drawing the audience into a singalong finale.

Ms. Mathlouthi is a 21st-century performer, versed in Western rock and dance music and touching on styles around the Mediterranean. Her 2012 international debut album, “Kelmti Horra” (World Village/Harmonia Mundi), uses rock and Middle Eastern instruments, electronics and samples of protests and speeches from the Arab Spring. On Wednesday she had only half of her usual Tunisian band, a keyboardist (mostly on piano) and a guitarist who could play oudlike lines. These musicians summoned the momentum of flamenco or created eerie electric-guitar drones and effects. (Her percussionist and violinist could not get visas.) She performed barefoot, sometimes using pedals to add effects to her voice or make loops of her vocals and guitar. Ms. Mathlouthi, 31, grew up in Tunisia listening to Western rock and to the 1960s folk revival, drawn to its spirit of protest. She went on to discover socially conscious Arabic-speaking songwriters like Sheikh Imam, from Egypt, and Marcel Khalife, from Lebanon. (She opened the concert singing Mr. Khalife’s “Bghalbetek” solo, with electronic echoes of her voice.)

Ms. Mathlouthi wrote songs of her own about Tunisia, but they were banned and her career was stymied. In 2007 she moved to France, where a friend, Amin El Ghozzi, gave her the lyrics for “My Word Is Free.” (Ms. Mathlouthi writes both words and music for most of her songs.) A video of “My Word Is Free” from a Paris concert spread, via YouTube and Facebook, around the Arabic-speaking world. She was on tour in Tunisia when the revolution arose in 2010, and in another widely circulated video she performed “My Word Is Free” during a rally there.

Her concert offered resolve and compassion, not stridency. She introduced songs in English: a homage to “people who fought for our freedom,” a song against fear, a song called “Dhalem” (“Tyrant”) that vowed, “Kill me, and I will write songs.” Each one was a musical narrative, unfolding in multiple sections, moving between delicacy and fierce tenacity, mourning and defiance. And her serious sense of purpose didn’t stop Ms. Mathlouthi from dancing at the end, twirling barefoot. - The New York Times


Discography

Kelmti Horra - World Village/Harmonia Mundi - March 2012

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Bio

Tunisian vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist Emel Mathlouthi captivates hearts and minds with her intimate, lyrical style, fierce rock beats, and throbbing trip-hop and oriental influences. Mathlouthi tells the story of HER Tunisia: the dark years as a young rebel and dissenter; the strife of being a female musician; her artistic and ideological struggle after her songs were banned from the radio and TV; and the dual love and suffering that came from longing for home while living in a free country.



Emel began her artistic career at the age of 8 in Ibn Sina, a suburb of Tunis. At age 25, after the Tunisian government had oppressed her because of her music, she moved to France to pursue her career as a singer.  She has been said to evoke the urgency of American folk singer, Joan Baez, with the devotion of a chanter of ancient sacred music and the presence of a soul diva.  She has given concerts in Saudi Arabia and all over the Middle East. In the beginning of July 2012, she gave a groundbreaking concert in Baghdad, Iraq.



Her passion and courage is evident in her deeply confessional music and powerful presence.  Her song Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free) was taken up by the Arab Spring revolutionaries and sung on the streets of Tunis. In her music, she includes electronically sampled sounds of the Arab Spring street protests, speeches from the deposed Tunisian president, and the announcement of resignation from Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak. But even without words, her voice evokes a yearning for freedom and change. She has quickly become a voice of the revolution and a shining musical light for the future.


Band Members