Your music was banned in Tunisia in the early 2000s—they wouldn’t play it on the radio, and you couldn’t play festivals. How did you first become aware of that?
It’s just so obvious, actually, because when you start writing songs like that, the first person you show it to is going to go: “You’re going to have trouble.” Your parents are going to tell you, “You’re not doing this! It’s crazy!” So there’s that first censorship before the government censorship. There was no way I could go to a big festival. I went to the radio a few times, but I was asked not to sing [specific] songs. Like, [condescending voice] “Hey, you’re a good girl. You know what’s going on. So you should sing that one. That one is perfect.” And they would cut you off.
At that point, what about your songs seemed so threatening?
I sang about not being able to express yourself—like living in prison. Some other time, there was a concert for AIDS. So, of course, I speak between the songs, and there was a song in which I say, “poor Tunisia.” And that was, like, the worst thing ever. The best argument of the regime was that they made Tunisia beautiful, like what Trump is saying now—they “made Tunisia great.” So when somebody comes and speaks up and says, “No, Tunisia is not great! Tunisia is awful! Tunisia is suffering!” that was, like, the end. There were two guys who called me and said, “Who are you? What are you doing?”
From the government?
Yes. They said, “We’re taking care of artists and would like to know more about you. Who writes the songs for you?” They tried to shake me a little bit. They threatened me in an indirect way—like, “We’re the ones who decide if you should exist as an artist, so you better be good to us and don’t say shit about Tunisia.”
There were people watching everywhere, that’s what we quickly learn as a teenager growing up in Tunisia. You never know who’s behind your back ready to report on your actions, so obviously there had to be undercover police when I sang at a concert and talked about AIDS in Tunisia. Those guys could be anybody, anywhere. They didn’t arrest musicians, but it was just so difficult—I mean, it was impossible. I didn’t want to give up so I just had to leave.
There were a few journalists on the radio who would sometimes try to put some of my songs on early in the morning or late at night. But “Kelmti Horra” was banned when the revolution started, and there was no way “Poor Tunisia” could be played. Some journalists started writing articles saying that I was a bad singer, that I was saying bullshit. When I started growing, they started attacking me. One of them approached me and said, “Why do you sing that?” She was yelling at me: “You’re not allowed to sing things like that, that’s wrong, you’re a liar.”
Did that reaction make you want to work harder?
Oh yeah. After the ’70s and ’80s, there had been a void in protest music in the Arab world; [in Tunisia] with the new government that came in 1987, there was nothing. It’s not very common to have social and political artists in the region because of the presence of dictators. There were some strong artistic movements in the ’60s and ’70s in Lebanon and Egypt, but the new generations didn’t really follow up. By the ’90s, all the young Arabs were definitely tamed, not aiming to have an opinion or change things. So when I started singing even Joan Baez songs, people were like, “Wow, how did you know about this? How do you even have a conscience? How is that possible?”
The problem is that activist music is very boring actually, or very simple. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a musician, too. I’m not a politician. I’m a singer first. I like Sinéad O’Connor, for example, because she really succeeded being a wonderful singer—you could listen to anything she would sing—but at the same time, she had this very strong link with her country. I think it’s possible to be both. From the early days, I was very interested in being totally free and singing in many different ways, and not just being beautiful or singing nice melodies.
Emel Mathlouthi: "Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia)"
As a teenager were you more interested in Western music?
Yeah. I met my first band when I was 19 at engineering school. Of course, none of us went to classes. We were a metal band. First it was Nirvana, Metallica, and all the ’90s grunge stuff. I was totally heavy metal and goth, and I hated singing in Arabic and I hated Arabic music. Eventually, my brain started maturing. At some point I felt that I needed to do more. Not just singing, but having a purpose. Especially when I listened to the folk scene here and Joan Baez. I said, “That’s exactly what I want to do!”
My dad has a lot of vinyl, especially a lot of classical music. I’ve always liked having strings. I really love the old Tunisian music from 1900-1950. It was a great period. People were really free. Even women would sing in a way that was revolutionary in how they used their voices, and the topics they used to sing—cigarettes, whiskey, hanging out with their lover.
What other artists inspired you?
Basically there are two main, very important musicians in the Arab alternative scene: Marcel Khalife, from Lebanon, and Sheikh Imam, from Egypt. Sheikh Imam was blind and he sang and played oud. He used to be very activist and he worked with a poet, who would write very strong lyrics. They were poor, so they had no choice but to write against the regime, for the farmers and the students. He composed, and they would sing, and then they would go to prison. They would write more songs in prison, and then go and sing, and then return to prison. He got really huge in Tunisia during the ’70s. So when I listen to him, I thought, What the fuck? This guy is huge! His music sounded like metal to me. For the Arab scene, he’s not considered a very serious musician and composer, which is completely wrong. He was doing all these harmonies. He was revolutionary. He really gave me energy.
Marcel Khalife was also very famous for his political positions. He was a part of the communist party in Lebanon. He was also, like me, very influenced by European classical music. Even his early songs, with just oud and voice—for me, he was a parallel to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. So I started singing his songs, transposing everything on the guitar.
Then I started discovering the folk scene from the States and the psychedelic scene and Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. All of these things really talk to me.
Do you feel like there’s anything about the music you’re making now that’s distinctly Tunisian?
Growing up in Tunisia made me wonder: What does being Tunisian mean? It wasn’t very easy for me to understand; we were Arabs, but I couldn’t really put it in words. We speak Tunisian, which is a dialect made of essentially Arabic mixed with words coming from different roots, like Berber or Turkish, and influenced by the arrivals of Italian and Spanish migration and French colonization. I think each one of us at some point has had an identity crisis. Being so close and culturally influenced by southern Europe and also being somehow a different kind of Arab than in the Middle East made me ask a lot of questions. It wasn’t easy to know what made me different from anyone else or from the culture that I inherited. Eventually it got a little better through my perpetual spiritual and artistic search. Being Tunisian is special in its own way, through its different and very rich connections by being an Arab, African, and Mediterranean country.
When I travelled to Paris, it became very important to me to define who I was. When you leave your country, you find out that you need to be somebody or you just feel lost. That’s how I ended up doing what I’m doing now. I take instruments from the folklore and the traditional music, very North African, very Tunisian instruments like the traditional bass, the gimbri, and all the percussions, the rhythms. The gnawa music is a trance music. It’s like the blues. It was music brought by slaves. So it has a lot of metal in it.
When I started working on the gimbri basslines on my album, I thought to add distortion to it so it would sound great and huge and unlike anything else. It won’t sound like Tunisian music because it will have my approach, and it won’t sound like electronic music because it’s coming from my home.