Thursday, May 23, 2013

The heroic song of Emel Mathlouthi: World Nomads Tunisia

Tunisian vocalist-guitarist Emel Mathlouthi (photo by Ghaith Ghoufa)
Emel Mathlouthi--exalted voice of the Arab Spring--concluded the live performance offerings of French Institute Alliance Française's World Nomads Tunisia last evening, accompanied by pianist Emmanuel Trouvé and guitarist Karim Attoumane. (The festival's film and visual arts presentations continue. See here.) Mathlouthi, who spent several years abroad in France where she could freely develop her career, is revered by progressive forces in her homeland. Her "Kelmti Horra" ("My Word is Free"), a song from 2007, became a major anthem of Tunisia's uprising. At Florence Gould Hall, she took a full and mesmerized audience on a ninety-minute tour through a spectrum of emotions--from alienated despair to thoughtful hope and even giddiness.

Mathlouthi is quite a mix: bare feet not quite squaring with the resplendence of her tomato-red party dress; pure, mellifluous vocals channeling anger and heartbreak not quite aligning with the impulse to sprinkle a couple of songs with Stevie Nicks spins. "Ethnia Twila," or "The Road is Long"--dedicated to "all those courageous people who fought for dignity and freedom"--veers from ballad to power ballad to New Age, Celtic-tinged folk reminiscent of Ireland's Máire Ní Bhraonáin (the voice of Clannad) and Canada's Loreena McKennitt.

Her gorgeous voice, soaring over the poetic, sometimes spooky work of Trouvé and Attoumane, often strongly evokes Björk. I noted that Björk resemblance and, later in the evening, chuckled to myself when, with an expression of ruefulness and yearning, Mathlouthi actually pulled Björk's "All Is Full of Love" from up her sleeve. Oh, and there was a Canadian angle, too, both unexpected and, curiously, expected. Can you guess? Yes, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," little more than dutiful in execution yet well-received.

Mathlouthi also doesn't need the reverb effects she occasionally applies to her songs. From art song to full-throated protest, her straight-ahead singing is quite enough.

It's regretable that FI:AF did not make provision for at least one or two more shows with this inspiring artist. But let's hope that the audience response--warm and loving--will encourage them to bring her back. While she need not have worried that her show would suffer without the two musicians who were unable to secure visas in time, it would be grand to have her return someday, able to share her songs in the way that, to her taste, represents them best.

Download Mathlouthi's Kelmti Horra CD here.

Connect with FI:AF here.

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