Stambeli music is an African ritual, mixing dance, music and singing together that was brought by former Sub-Saharan African slaves to Tunisia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The musical genre survived in a predominantly Muslim country and combined with Islamic traditions, creating a unique, hybrid culture within the Tunisian culture.
The group of Sidi Ali Lasmar, the patron-saint of black Tunisians in the Bab Jedid area of Tunis, is a Stambeli musical group that proposes a ceremony and a festive show, the Mouldiya and Chaabaniya,which take place twice a year: the first one after the birth of Prophet Mohamed and the second one later in June . This year’s Mouldiya took place on Saturday, February, 11th, 2012 at the Sidi Ali Lasmar mausoleum. The show runs from 3pm until 3am the next day, Sunday, February 12th, 2012. The Mouldiya usually starts on the seventh day after Mawlid, the birthday of Prophet Mohamed each year.
The Stambeli dance relates to a fetishistic culture with supernatural powers that treat certain ills, exorcise demons, conjure up the evil eye and appease angry spirits. It is a cult of therapeutic musical possession in which music becomes a healer. The zawiya (Arabic for shrine) of Sidi Ali Lasmar is located in the heart of Tunis and is among the last places in Tunisia where Stambeli is still performed.
Riadh Zaouch is currently the “caretaker” of the Sidi Ali Lasmar Sufi order. Speaking to Tunisia Live, he stated that even if Stambeli is an ethnically African musical genre, rooted in the cultures of former Sub-Saharan black slaves, it has mixed with local music. “It belongs to the Tunisian Sufi order like Tijaniya, Shadliya and other patron saints of Tunisia. Its equivalent in the region includes Gnawa in Morocco, the Diwan in Algeria and the Makeli in Libya.”
In a study entitled “Black Spirits, White Saints: Sub-Saharan Music, Spirit Possession and the Geocultural Imagination in North Africa” Richard Jankowsky, a professor of ethnomusicology at Tufts University, explains how Stamebli mediates between black Sub-Saharan African cultures and white North African (Tunisian) cultural traditions. The word Stambeli is thought to derive from sambeli, used to designate certain musical practices and cults of spirits possession among the tribes of Songhay in Mali and Hausa in Niger and Nigeria.
According to Ismael Montana, a professor of history at Northern Illinois University, the Nigerian Hausa non-Muslim Bori practice among West African slaves in 18th century Ottoman Tunis was the only way for their original culture to survive. Through this practice, they managed to retain religious and family values of their homelands.
By invoking the Bori cult, West African slaves in Tunis were able to overcome the feeling of alienation, grievance, psychological crisis and estrangement caused by their enslavement in Ottoman Tunis just like their counterparts did across the Atlantic. This is evidenced by the Voodoo practice in Haiti among other black diasporic cultures.
Stambeli uses a range of musical instruments, mostly of Sub-Saharan African origin. The most important of them is Gumbri, a three-string lute. Other instruments used in Stambeli include Shqashiq, iron rattle snakes. During the procession, at the beginning of the ceremony, a tabla, a two-face drum is also used along with kerakeb, a set of small round drums accompanying the percussion instruments.
The gumbri is found in almost similar forms in West Africa, especially in the Lake Chad area where most black slaves were brought to Tunisia. The gumbri musician is called yenna, the master of the ceremony. The dancers are both males and females and are called arifa.
The music and sounds made from these instruments serve as a catalyst during the procession of healing whereby it attracts spirits that manifest themselves through the ritualized possession of the host, Jankowsky stated. During the Mouldiya of Sidi Ali Lasmar, some of the hosts present at the zawiya were white Tunisian elderly women, one was partially paralyzed and was moving nervously to the sounds of the music.
For some hosts in the audience, it can be an exercise of exorcism, as they begin to dance in a trance in the circle in front of the musicians, to the extent that sometimes they either end up fainting, or are held by one of the arifa from falling. For some, dancing can be such an uninhibiting experience, allowing them to escape from the constraints of a monotonous, stringent and stressful lifestyle where they let loose their bodies to the sounds of African music.
Stambeli has succeeded in bringing black and white Tunisians together through dancing. The practice has also crossed the Muslim-Jewish divide in Tunisia. Eli Somer and Meir Saadon of the University of Haifa have studied the healing effect of Stambeli on Jewish-Tunisian immigrants in Israel.
Zaouch kept tending to his hosts while performing a dance with the arifa. When asked how he came to embrace the Stambeli – for someone who is not black and claims to be born into an all white Tunis family – he said smiling “when I was little, I had an illness that my parents did not know an efficient cure for, so they brought me to Sidi Ali Lasmar shrine, and from that day on, I became a part of it. It helped my healing process ever since.”