Tunisian artist Emel Mathlouthi on her Arab roots and creating a universal language for music
She is a singer, songwriter, composer and dancer who is determined to create music for people around the globe
Sunlight is beating down on the narrow medieval streets of Cagliari, the beguiling Sardinian capital and beach town that spreads across several hills like a micro-Rome. Emel Mathlouthi is getting ready for her concert. When we sit down, her smile glows. The conversation is mellow.
At 39, the Tunisia-born songwriter, composer and dancer is a global child and a singer for the diaspora. “I have always felt like a global, universal human being,” she tells wknd. “To me, all human beings are beautiful when they have the right space and the right chances. Any corner of the world has a place in my heart, my songs and my music. That is where I take inspiration. Art has no borders. My voice belongs to anyone who wants to open their heart and soul.”
Whether you sing in Tunisian, English or French, do you always pay respectful homage to your Arabic roots?
Absolutely, but I also realise that I have various roots. So many different cultures and civilisations lived in Tunisia and left their mark. My homeland is partly Berbere, partly Mediterranean and partly Arabic. I grew up with both the music of Habiba Msika and Beethoven, the literature of Dostoevsky and Mark Twain, the poetry of Ab Nuws and Mayakovsky. I feel extremely diverse, and that is what makes my music so unique.
And what do your Arabic roots mean to you?
I am so joyful to have Arabic roots, among others. I love sharing such a rich cultural background with Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and other people from Middle Eastern countries. Arabic music, literature and poetry nourished me. They gave my art so much depth and meaning. I feel fortunate to know the Arabic language so well and to belong to its culture.
Why does your music touch different genres — world music, electro, avant-garde?
My upbringing made me feel borderless. When I travelled to Europe, I discovered music segregation. I couldn’t grasp the idea that Western media had already figured me out with their idea of what I should be singing and presenting. So that made me even more stubborn to defend my freedom. I refuse to sing in one specific language to respond to some exotic image. I want to be free like the wind and be true to myself and my feelings.
You recorded your recent double album titled The Tunis Diaries on a laptop during the lockdown in Tunisia. Those beautiful tunes talk about suffering and misery. One song called Ma Lkit speaks about the difficulty of finding happiness and rest; another one is called Ensen Dhaif or Human, Helpless Human. Do you have a pessimistic outlook on the world and the human condition?
I don’t consider myself a pessimist. Some of my songs depict reality as it is, and sometimes just spitting it out in a song or a verse can make us feel better — whether for the artist or the listener. It has a healing power to face your sorrows and fears. Everyone’s life is planted with mines, some bigger than others. I think it feels good to sit down with your sadness and heartbreak for a moment. That’s what music does to me.
Legendary Egyptian composer and singer Sheikh Imam and iconic American singer and activist Joan Baez greatly impacted your music. They are both known for their protest songs in favour of the poor and the less privileged.
To me, Sheikh Imam was a pillar as I was growing as a musician. His voice, his songs, his strength, his cause showed me the way on how to be honest, uncompromising, true to yourself and inspire others. Joan Baez had the same impact as well. But also Irish songwriters Dolores O’Riordan and Sinéad O’Connor greatly influenced me as inspiring women, amazing singers, true human beings, and very committed and generous artists. It’s unheard of nowadays to find such complete artists.
You decided to be a professional singer during your university engineering studies, but do you remember the moment you acquired awareness of your voice? And what was the song that first mesmerised you?
I have always wanted to be a singer since I was a child. The demons and fairies of art have possessed me since then. Sure, I remember I was nine. And it was an Arabic song called Alaiki Mini Salam Ya Ardha Ajdady. It always felt so natural and so amazing to sing. It’s the best gift.
What kind of child were you?
Very quiet but also extroverted. I had a strong personality with my friends. I always had a plan and loved to direct my playmates.
Which performances/recordings of yours made you feel proud of yourself?
It’s hard to choose, but I must say the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in 2015 when I sang Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free). It was the hardest stage to convince, and somehow the music took over, and I did it.
What is your creative process? What do you have to do to get into the mindset to start writing and composing?
I am always scared before starting a creative session because I never know how to get to my inner self. But somehow, it happens pretty fast every time. I take a deep breath, sit down at my desk, turn on a lovely light. For that, I like being in the countryside. A big window usually overlooks nature in front of me. Then I start playing some old draft or a song sketch, not knowing what to do or where to go and whether it is fast enough. The magic happens: I start having ideas. I always try to take it easy, not to put too much pressure. I listen and see where my brain takes me, whether to record a keyboard arpeggio or add a vocal line, one step at a time.
What is the driving force behind your music?
I think there are many. The place where I grew up made me so determined to overcome dictatorship, traditions, society, and family rules. I have always felt that music would be my sole faithful companion, so I sought refuge in it. I found a life purpose in music; it justified my whole existence. When I sing or make music, I don’t feel lost or lonely. I feel strong, hopeful and inspired. It makes me believe in a different world. It builds bridges between our hearts, our differences. Music brings us together in a place where there are no conflicts, no hatred, no violence. Music is just feeling and depth.
Joan Baez’s motto was “Little victories and big defeats.” She said, “If you accept the big defeats, then everything you do as a small victory becomes crucial.” What do you think?
I agree with Joan. There are defeats in life and music, but also little miracles that lead to a victory. And that victory can be as big as five defeats. It’s all a question of perspective. We’re not in this for a long, straight, flat line; we’re in for the curves, the bumps, the slowdowns to make us appreciate beautiful things. I take one day at a time.
Do you have a personal motto?
Be yourself and be productive. It is the only key to being happy, and don’t waste your precious time.
Has anger ever been the fuel to your creativity?
Absolutely! I think every artist experiences anger that fuels creativity. As a Tunisian, a woman, and simply a sensitive ‘different’ person, I had to overcome so many difficulties. Almost no one believed in me, and that used to upset me. But in the end, that situation gave me a strong will to pave my path and smash the doors wide open for myself.
Is it a challenge to separate your sense of your ‘self’ as an artist from your value in the marketplace?
It’s a big challenge indeed. Maybe the biggest for an artist. The music industry changes all the time. Most artists struggle to keep up, and it becomes a source of considerable anxiety. In music, all the frontiers get blurred. Making music is a sensitive process as creativity comes from your heart, soul, sweat, and tears. After months, thousands of hours of work, you are exposed bare naked to a value system that may never make sense. The best way to stay sane is to remind yourself of your worth constantly.
What is your relationship with the UAE and its audience?
I have only performed there once, and it was very nice as the audience is so eclectic. All those people coming from so many different places were so friendly. I would love to come back.
So are you planning a tour in the Gulf countries?
That is on my agenda, nothing concrete yet, but I take invitations!
What is your next project?
Come December and I will be the first Tunisian artist to tour Japan. I am very excited. I am also working on a 100 per cent female-produced new record, a very complex and exciting journey. It’s something no one ever did before, and I am so proud to be working on such a project because it will have so many positive outcomes. We need to break the cycle of male dominance in the music industry and create a virtuous circle by women for more inclusion, more representation, and fairer chances.