“Bulimique — we say in French,” says Emel Mathlouthi, recalling the years when she would gorge on music. “I was discovering all this stuff at the same time,” she says citing influences of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Sheikh Imam and Marcel Khalife.
“So it was just like ‘wow!’ It was a pretty strong period in my life,” the Tunisian singer tells Daily News Egypt.
Last Thursday night at Azhar Park’s Geneina Theater, Mathlouthi revealed her varied repertoire starting with “Al Bab Darek” (At Your Door), a song carrying the local Tunisian flavor.
The artist appeared barefoot and in a red dress onstage. Her voice too rises, powerful and open, and in a full long breath. As the music takes over, she sways with her company of violin, bass and percussion.
In other songs, Mathlouthi reveals her talents in guitar-playing. Mathlouthi left her university band Idiom to pursue a different direction. “I decided to play guitar, and perform these artists I discovered. That was a new thing for Tunisians; this is why I think a lot of people helped me to grow.”
In 2004, the artist began composing songs in her own Tunisian dialect as well, and three years ago, she moved to Paris.
Her songs vary from hard-hitting notes, an inheritance of her early flirtations with heavy metal and had rock, to more plaintive ones, such as “Naci en Palestine” (Born in Palestine) — bemoaning the absence of a Palestinian homeland.
“It’s about gypsies, the story of gypsies,” she says talking about the original song “Naci en Alamo” (Born in Alamo). “They don’t have land.”
The song would be cynical in this context because “maybe for gypsies it’s a choice, but for Palestine it’s not.”
“It’s a beautiful song, and I think maybe I added some special thing to it. Some Arabic words are nicer, because our language is beautiful,” said Mathlouthi.
Like “Naci en Alamo” — a song from the Spanish film “Vengo” — many songs Mathlouthi performs are covers from movie soundtracks.
“I love cinema. I watch movies all the time, and this way I discover a lot of interesting music.”
Among her soundtrack covers are “Ben Seni Sevduğumi” (That I Love You) from Fatih Akin’s “Edge of Heaven” and “Ederlezi,” a folk song from Emri Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies.”
Most of these songs are by or about people without a homeland, “Maybe I am sensitive to [that],” agreed Mathlouthi, “because these songs are very deep. This suffering of these people gives me a push.”
So it is natural that the Palestinian cause is close to her heart. Following the Israeli bombing of Gaza last year, Mathlouthi composed, “Ma lkeitt” (I didn’t find). “I didn’t find words,” go the lyrics, “I didn’t find friends to answer my questions. I didn’t find why all this is happening.”
Unusual among her influences is Fairouz. “She is more romantic. I am more revolutionary,” admits the artist.
“I have always been a rebel in my attitude — in my college, in my daily life, so my music is this way. I don’t pretend to have very strong political positions, but I try to talk about what I’m feeling: freedom.”
“I would like really to go this far than Sheikh Imam went, but maybe I need someone to write words, not stronger but more direct, like [Ahmad Fouad] Negm did.”
Her more powerful performances of the Geneina night were her covers of Sheikh Imam — Ahmad Fouad Negm songs, which she played solo on her guitar, reminding Egypt that it was a land of the fellaheen (a common theme in Negm’s lyrics), and that the struggle is still not over.
Mathlouthi’s songs are also nationalistic. “It’s logical,” she says, “The best way to write honest words is to start by yourself.”
Just as she identifies with songs from world cinema, audiences identify with her nostalgia for Tunisia, “The situation in Tunisia is the same in all of our countries. It’s good because I can talk about me, and talk in the same way about a lot of people.
“This is what happens when you listen to a song and just take it for yourself; it doesn’t matter about what country the song is.”
The Tunisian artist speaks five languages, and likes to sing in many of these. “This is a part of Emel Mathlouthi,” she said, “I have my own stuff, but I really love discovering. I have always been curious about other music.”
How she describes her appetite for music, is probably the best description of her own music: “You know when you have food, different food, very good food.”
For more information on Emel Mathlouthi, visit www.myspace.com/amelmathlouthi.
Originally published online at Daily News Egypt on September 5, 2010.