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Sat January 5, 2013
Music Interviews

Emel Mathlouthi: Voice Of The Tunisian Revolution

Originally published on Sat January 5, 2013 9:59 am

With all that's going on in the Middle East right now, it's easy to forget that the Arab Spring began just two years ago in Tunisia.

Singer Emel Mathlouthi has been called "The Voice of the Tunisian Revolution." A video of one of her songs went viral and became an anthem for protesters in her homeland during the December 2010 uprising. She released her debut album in the U.S. last year.

Mathlouthi grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music — from traditional Tunisian songs to her father's record collection.

"He was listening to vinyl of European classical music and some jazz and blues, old jazz and old blues from America, like Mahalia Jackson and Jack Dupree," Mathlouthi says.

Mathlouthi started performing when she was 15 and joined a band in college. But she says there was no way for a young independent musician, let alone a woman, to get heard in Tunisia.

"Because there were no structures, there was no help from the government for music like I was doing," Mathlouthi says. "I couldn't go on TV, I couldn't go to the radio, so I couldn't reach a larger audience."

Mathlouthi didn't help her chances of getting on government-controlled media when she started writing songs against the regime of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2008, she moved to France and began working on the songs for her first album.

'Songs Are Eternal'

Mathlouthi says she was writing a lot of political songs like "Dhalem" ("Tyrant"), but nothing was happening in Tunisia.

"I was posting my songs on the social media, and I was trying to reach a larger audience, especially in Tunisia, so I can talk to them, and I can give them all my strength," Mathlouthi says. "But I felt, from time to time, like everyone and every artist — I was desperate, and I was saying, so the dictatorship is growing and I am here, like, writing songs, and so what?"

Then, she remembered a poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish called "There Is on This Land What Is Worth Living."

"I realize that that was the power," Mathlouthi says. "The power is to write songs, because the songs are eternal; the melodies will be here like witnesses. But the dictatorship and the persons will go, and this is why I wrote this song."

In the summer of 2007, at the iconic Place de la Bastille in Paris, where the French Revolution began, Mathlouthi sang "Kelmti Horra" ("My Word Is Free") to an audience of tens of thousands. A video of the performance reached Tunisia and resonated with protesters in the streets.

"She has so much courage to sing that around that time," says MC Rai, a 35-year-old Tunisian singer and composer based in San Francisco. "When the dictators in Tunisia, the old regime, were in the top of their power — and for her to even have the courage to sing that, when she was living still between France and Tunisia — I thought she really was a true artist, because that's what the art is about."

Four years later, Mathlouthi returned to the streets of Tunis to sing "Kelmti Horra" just hours before President Ben Ali fled the country.

'A Love Of Freedom'

The last song on Mathlouthi's album is called "Yezzi" ("Enough"). It begins with a simple folk melody and unfolds into three cinematic images. In the first part, Mathlouthi sampled sounds of the Arab Spring street protests. The second part includes the last speech by the deposed Tunisian president. And the third part begins with an announcement of the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

The chorus says, "Freedom is in the street / Freedom is in the countryside / Not inside your house."

"And I think it still can talk to Arab governments because we are not seeing so much changes, not really," says Mathlouthi. "We made revolutions, but maybe we are welcoming a new dictator, so we don't know."

Still, Mathlouthi has hope for the region. In her song "The Road Is Long," she sings: "My country stands above all tyrants and oppression / and despite the long road ahead / My heart will forever shelter / a love of freedom."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

With all that's going on in the Middle East right now, it's easy to forget that the Arab Spring began just two years ago in Tunisia. Singer Emel Mathlouthi has been called "The Voice of the Tunisian Revolution." A video of one of her songs went viral and became an anthem for protesters during the December 2010 uprising. She released her debut album in the United States last year. Betto Arcos caught up with her in Los Angeles and has this profile.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Emel Mathlouthi grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music - from traditional Tunisian songs to her father's record collection.

EMEL MATHLOUTHI: He was listening to vinyls of European classical music and some old jazz and old blues from America like Mahalia Jackson and Jack Dupree.

ARCOS: Mathlouthi started performing when she was 15 and joined a band in college. But she says there was no way for a young independent musician, let alone a woman, to get heard in Tunisia.

MATHLOUTHI: I couldn't be a professional musician there because there was no structures, there was no help from the government for music like I was doing. And I couldn't go on TV, I couldn't go to the radio, so I couldn't reach a larger audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DHALEM")

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Kill me. I write a song. Imprison me. I will sing a story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DHALEM")

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: Mathlouthi didn't help her chances of getting on government-controlled media when she started writing songs against the regime of then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. She decided to move to France and began working on the songs for her first album. One is called "Dhalem" or "Tyrant."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DHALEM")

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Time will carry you away. My melodies are eternal. Oh, tyrant, you'll see a day when you become a victim. Kill me. I write a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DHALEM")

ARCOS: Mathlouthi says she was writing a lot of songs like this, but nothing was happening in Tunisia.

MATHLOUTHI: I was posting my songs on the social medias and I was trying to reach a larger audience, especially in Tunisia, so I can talk to them and I can give them all my strength. But I felt, from time to time, you know, like everyone and every artist, I was desperate and I was saying, so the dictatorship is growing and I am here, like, writing songs, and so what?

ARCOS: Then, she remembered a poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish called "There is on this Land what is Worth Living."

MATHLOUTHI: I realize that the power is to write songs because the songs are eternal, the melodies will be here like witnesses. But the dictatorship and the persons will go.

ARCOS: In the Summer of 2007, at the iconic Place de la Bastille in Paris , where the French Revolution began, Mathlouthi sang "Klemti Horra," "My Word is Free" to an audience of tens of thousands. A video of the performance reached Tunisia and resonated with protesters in the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KLEMTI HORRA")

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

MC RAI: She has so much courage to sing that, around that time.

ARCOS: MC Rai is a 35-year-old Tunisian singer and composer, based in San Francisco.

RAI: When the dictators in Tunisia, the old regime, were in the top of their power, for her to even have the courage to sing that, when she was living still between France and Tunisia, I thought she really was true artist because that's what the art is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KLEMTI HORRA")

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I am those who are free and never fear. I am the secrets that will never die. I am the voice of those who would not give in.

ARCOS: Four years later, Mathlouthi returned to the streets of Tunis to sing "Klemti Horra" just hours before President Ben Ali fled the country.

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: The last song on Emel Mathlouthi's album is called "Yezzi," "Enough." It begins with a simple folk melody and unfolds into three cinematic images. In the first part, Mathlouthi sampled sounds of the Arab Spring street protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEZZI")

ARCOS: The second part includes the last speech by the deposed Tunisian president.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEZZI")

ZINE ABIDINE BEN ALI: (foreign language spoken)

ARCOS: And the third part begins with announcement of the resignation of Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEZZI")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (foreign language spoken)

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: The chorus says freedom is in the street, freedom is in the countryside, not inside your house.

MATHLOUTHI: And I think it still can talk to Arab governments because we are not seeing so much changes, not really. We made revolutions but maybe we are welcoming a new dictator, so we don't know.

ARCOS: Still, Emel Mathlouthi has hope for the region. In her song "The Road is Long," she sings: My country stands above all tyrants and oppression, and despite the long road ahead, my heart will forever shelter, a love of freedom. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROAD IS LONG")

MATHLOUTHI: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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