Among the iconic images to emerge from the "Arab Spring" was a YouTube video of a stylish young Tunisian woman singing a capella, surrounded by chanting demonstrators during the final weeks of President Ben Ali's regime. The singer was Emel Mathlouthi and in the video she sings her signature song, "Kelmti Horra" (My Word is Free).
Despite her youth, (the French wiki page lists her birthday as January 11, 1982), Mathlouthi has already absorbed a wide-range of musical influences: from western and Arabic classical music at home, to Dylan, Pink Floyd and Joan Baez (so claims her biography...). In retrospect, the most significant encounters in Mathlouthi's artistic development were the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and the music of Palestinian folk singer Marcel Khalife. Her identification with the Palestinian cause gave her music a new sense of seriousness and purpose. In 2007, Mathlouthi immigrated to Paris where she connected with the musical and cultural life of the North African Diaspora there and further broadened her musical experience through collaborations with progressive DJs and producers such as Tricky and CharlElie Couture.
Mathlouthi's first international release is a remarkably mature and consistent effort. She sings in Arabic, French and English and her arrangements, most of which prominently feature an acoustic string ensemble and Tunisian percussion, reflect influences of "arabesque" and classical Tunisian Malouf, deftly blended with Trip Hop atmospherics and an art rock sensibility.
From the very first track (Houdou'on (Calm)), you are gripped by the sound of Mathlouthi's rich, unaccompanied voice. A gentle wash of electronics and later, a string trio establish a strong sense of locale, weaving a distinctive tapestry of sound, rich in the musical traditions of the Maghreb. From here, we follow Mathlouthi as she tells the story of her Tunisia, "...the story of the dark years as seen through my eyes: through my experience as a student, a young rebel and dissenter, through my years of artistic and ideological struggle, and through my immigrant tears, my suffering and my love of freedom."
Standout tracks include Ma lkit (Not Found), a passionate lament about life's obstacles and the rarity of friends and "Dhalem" (Tyrant), whose gentle opening sounds almost like a lullaby before blossoming with near-operatic vocals sung in classical Arabic to a dirge-like cadence. At the other end of the spectrum, both "Stranger" (sung in English) and "Hinama" (When) are deeply indebted to Bjork, but it's the title track, Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free) that steals the show: its calm confidence and tight vocal harmonies transcend place and time - there is little wonder how this became the theme for Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution.
Make no mistake, Mathlouthi's songs are political, as indeed all art is politically bound by the circumstance in which it was created, but do not expect any adrenaline-filled martial anthems or urgently voiced histrionics. Much of the album plays like a late night meditation, something much more intimate than a "call to action" and herein is Mathlouthi's genius: she persuades us with a whisper and not a shout.
"Kelmti Horra" is an eloquent and thoughtful document of the "Arab Spring" but even more, it presents Mathlouthi as a sensitive and gifted songwriter, able to draw upon a wide range of influences and fuse them into something beautiful and moving. I can only hope that out of the current tragedy in Syria that similar voices may arise to prick our conscience.