For many young Tunisians US influenced rap represents everything that the country’s traditional folk music does not. Soaked through with the spirit of revolution, the pivotal role of artists such as Hamda Ben Amor, also known as El-General played in the build up to the 2011 revolution with songs such as Rais Lebled, one of the first to openly criticize the old regime and which resulted in the artist’s imprisonment for three days is just one example; and one which many are keen to follow.
However, while rap music typically seeks to define the country in terms of its politics, other aspects of Tunisian life are often overlooked. In fact, the country has long been home to a unique form of indigenous folk music that is perhaps more representative of its people than any US import and that is only now, five years after the tumultuous events of 2011, beginning to find its voice.
For Sabrine Saidani, a 24 year-old student currently pursuing her Doctorate in dentistry, folk music is both her history and her future. Identifying herself as a “Banzadrahemian,” an amalgam of her parents’ roots in Ain Drahem and Bizerte, (Banzart in Tunisian Arabic), in the country’s northern reaches.
Saidani herself never had the chance to formally study music, nor perform until 2012. Her first chance came at an event organised by Majd Mastoura, the famous Tunisian actor and the winner of the 66th Berlin International Film Festival’s Silver Bear for Best Actor. Saidani describes how, without warning, Mastoura gave Saidani the microphone, “knowing what she was capable of doing”. Saidani told Tunisia Live that she hasn’t stopped singing and performing since.
It seems to be going well. So far her latest Facebook video has reached over 60 thousands views. Saidani expressed both her gratitude and surprise at her success, saying that she thought the traditional music she performs, though full of life, wasn’t as well regarded in Tunisia as it could be. Saidani also spoke of how one famous comedian, the sarcastic standup, Lotfi Abdelli, shared her music, yet she received, “no recognition, nor acknowledgement” from either the Ministry of Culture, or the Ministry of Youth.
Irrespective of official encouragement, her popularity is rising and Saidani spoke of her gratitude to those who had shared her video and encouraged her, especially her uncle, who urged her to to “keep doing what she is doing” a process she herself describes as, “modernizing and reviving, (Tunisian) folk music”
Tunisia’s folk music dates back to the earliest centuries of the country’s history and has developed throughout the years to include more and more cultures and sounds. Before the Muslim-Arab conquest in 670, Berbers used to sing in Tamazight. Slowly, Arabic was introduced to their music. According to Saidani, contemporary folk music is the “fusion of the world we are in and the world that is front of us.” She also added that “thanks to Tunisia’s geographical position, our folk music is a melting pot in itself. Folk music possesses a worldly spirit that nobody gives attention to.”
Though its commercial popularity may be dwindling, its traditions remain important to Saibani, who sings in Tunisian Arabic, a dialect many youngsters have turned their backs on when it comes to music. “You turn on the radio and you only hear Western or Middle-Eastern songs,” claimed Saibani.
Chupee Do and Ramy Z, otherwise known as Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlemi of the folk duo, Yuma agree. Although the duo use a guitar for all their songs, an instrument that is considered by many Tunisian folk aficionados as Western, they also look to infuse their music with traditional Tunisian dialect, striking a deep chord with young Tunisians. The recently formed duo focus on producing and composing folk and alternative music by merging occidental and oriental influences to form a unique sound.
However, despite the relative success of artists such as Saidani and Yuma, one of the critical problems Tunisian folk music is currently facing is the lack of advertising. There are hardly any festivals that encourage either amateurs or artists to play folk music. Echoing much of what Saidani said, Yuma’s Sabrine Jenhani agreed, “there is English and French music everywhere. All around us, all the time. We forget that Tunisian is a very rich dialect that can convey our stories well.”
One challenge facing the country’s folk scene is the centralization of music production in the capital, Tunis, which forces a lot of folk artists and musicians to produce their music independently. However, for others, the freedom of commercial considerations can be a bonus. Yuma feel a sense of mission, in that they must, “sing from the heart about what they can identify with;” something they see as impossible once they sign a contract with a production company. Instead, for artists such as Yuma and Saidani, artistic freedom is to be found through small sponsors and people who voluntarily help out for the love of the music, such as Yuma’s video for Smek (Your Sky) which was recorded by Yassine Redissi for free.
Although reviving Tunisian folk music to some people may seem impossible, the young artists are not giving up their mission to show another side to Tunisian music. They choose to sing about peace, love, friendship and humanitarian values. For artists such as Yuma and Saidani, folk music is a means to escape and dream about a better tomorrow. Down to earth, light-hearted, and youthful, both Yuma and Sabrine Saidani hope to continue making “live and lively” music and spreading Tunisian folk music and heritage for some time yet.
Nourjahen is an intern in the Tunisia Live newsroom. A graduate of the US Department of State's, Yes program, Nourjahen is fluent in English, German, Arabic and Fren