Amal Cherif, the hometown headliner at this year’s Jazz à Carthage festival, says she taught herself her craft using a book called Piano for Dummies and had her first solo gigs at karaoke nights in Lac cafes.
She credits her success to these humble beginnings. “Adversity is what makes you outdo yourself,” she told Tunisia Live. “What helped me is the fact that nobody helped me.”
Cherif, age 29, was born in Tunis but grew up in her family’s home region of Djerba where she performed from the age of 16 with her father, also a musician, who encouraged her to develop her skills and gave her advice on dealing with stage fright.
But Cherif’s career didn’t begin in earnest until she moved back to Tunis to pursue university studies after passing the baccalaureate exam. Her first solo performance was at karaoke night at Biwa in Lac. “My first time on stage, I felt a connection with the audience,” she said, which is what drove her to continue performing and writing music.
In the beginning she sang mostly English-language jazz and blues standards about love and heartbreak. But with the 2011 revolution, she began to write her own music in her native Tunisian Arabic.
“Ever since writing the song “Bledi,” [which means “my country”]… I have felt more engaged because I have been writing in the language of my generation,” she said. “After that, I no longer wanted to sing in English.” Many of Cherif’s songs mix the two languages.
“I write about intimate issues, but I have the impression that I’m writing about things that everyone lives and feels,” she added.
“Bledi” and Cherif’s other early original works would be the seeds of her first album Ghodwa, which means “tomorrow” in the Tunisian dialect. The title track “Ghodwa” was released in 2015 and the album’s songs will feature in Cherif’s April 9 performance at the Carthage festival.
The album “is about questioning, awareness, hope and melancholy,” she said. “It is also about my tense relationship with the society, my sense of non-belonging.” Cherif credits jazz guitarist Hedi Fehem with being the “soul” of Ghodwa and also with giving her the support she needed to complete the album.
Despite the support of her father and established musicians like Fehem, Cherif says the road to playing at the Carthage festival has not been an easy one. When she came to Tunis, she experienced family pressure to study something practical. She was told “music alone can’t make a living,” so she studied graphic design and currently works as a digital strategic planner at an advertising agency to pay rent.
“When I moved back to Tunis, I needed to prove to my dad that I could make it without him,” she said. “It was important for me to show him what I had made of myself by getting my first paycheck.”
While music is professionally a side-project for Cherif, it’s also her central passion, and she expressed concern that many other young talents are discouraged by the difficulties of making a living in Tunisia as a musician.
She said too many young musicians give up their passion for paying jobs. “We need to defend ourselves against that,” she said. “If we make art for art’s sake, it can work.”
“Whether you work in a bank, a company, or the municipality, whether you are poor or rich… you can be an artist and live this state of mind,” she added. “I want to make this industry move and shake. You can’t have an industry, without a product, and if we were 2,000 artists and each one of us creating his or her own product, then we would own the production company.”
With regard to her own career, Cherif sees headlining the 11th edition of Jazz à Carthage as a big break. “That night will be a discovery,” she said. “The audience will discover me.”