Jakarta Hosts the Tunisian Uprising’s Songstress
Tunisian-born Emel Mathlouthi credits growing up with an activist father for her own rebellious streak, which in turn inspired her to pen lyrics and sing about the revolution in her country.
On Tuesday night, the singer performed at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta, at a concert presented by the French cultural center Institut Francais Indonesia.
The singer-songwriter enchanted the crowd with her captivating voice, singing 12 songs in Arabic from her first album “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”).
The Paris-based artist, who appeared on stage barefoot, flawlessly hit all the notes while occasionally playing an acoustic guitar. Tuesday’s audience could feel her anger and dissatisfaction, despite the language barrier.
“This song is about Tunisia, it’s about fear. It’s called ‘Ya Tounes Ya Meskina’ or ‘Poor Tunisia,’ ” Mathlouthi said before singing the dark, depressing tune accentuated by the wailing of a violin.
Mathlouthi was supported by three musicians on stage: a percussionist, violinist and keyboardist-DJ. The minimalist ensemble surprisingly produced a strong Middle Eastern vibe. The DJ aggressively scratched and tapped, exploring all the possibilities of a funk creation. Special effects often included a flurry of distinct voices while dynamic drum beats never escaped a song unnoticed. Everyone on stage knew their part and played it well.
Dimmed lighting and a simple setting helped set the mood of discontent that Mathlouthi boldly states through her music. She could sound like a rocker screaming her heart out at one moment and deliver softly whispered lyrics at another during the two-hour concert. The indie artist described her music as melding elements of rock and orchestral elements, and inspired by an Arabian spirit.
“With my voice, I try to fill in the space. So people who don’t understand the lyrics can still feel and imagine something. They can find the universe inside the songs,” said Mathlouthi shortly before the show started. “Even when I first worked on this album, I didn’t give the others the translations [of the lyrics]. I wanted them to create something around my voice that can inspire them even without understanding the lyrics.”
The message of the songs she writes is anything but your traditional love and heartache ballads. She writes often about freedom, and in more sweeping efforts, addresses subjects no less dramatic than the end of the world.
During volatile times like a revolution, speaking your mind may put you behind bars, but “lucky” for Mathlouthi, her musical demands for a freer Tunisia only caused her songs to be banned from the country’s airwaves. But that ban has done nothing to stop her from making music.
Her signing with an independent label has been exactly what she needed, giving her full creative freedom.
“When I first started to play music, I met a lot of crazy people who wanted me to sing their own ideas,” she said. “But I’m happy during the process of the creation and with all the arrangements and compositions I’m making. That’s the most important thing.”
It is clear that nothing will stop this musician from spreading her message, which may be summed up best in her song “Dhalem” (“Tyrant”):
“Kill me, and I will write songs. Wound me and I will sing stories. Give me more suffering. It will warm up my winter. Melodies will rain down and dry up my tears. Time will claim you while they will live on. Tyrant, the time will come when you will be the scapegoat.”