Tunisian artist Ghalia Benali's new album Azan as 'a call to listen’

Amira El-Noshokaty, Saturday 23 May 2020

A few days ago, Tunisian artist Ghalia Benali released her latest album Azan (A call to prayer). Ahram Online interviewed the music diva on the project that has been in the making for some years

Ghalia Benali
Ghalia Benali

‘A call to prayer’ is the English translation of Azan, the name of the album released recently by the Tunisian artist Ghalia Benali.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Ghalia Benali clarifies that the album's name has deeper connotations, saying: "I am not calling for prayer, it’s more of a call to listen."

The album is an interesting melange between spiritual lyrics – some dating to 2012 – woven with 17th century music by icon Marin Marais. With only two classical music instruments, Viola da gamba, contrabass (Romina Lischaka) and Benali’s voice, the music arrangement is quite an elevating experience.

“Listening to the past, while being in the present, is what we did and it took a spiritual approach,” Benali said, explaining that bringing both ends together took a lot of hard work and soulful connection.

"It’s as if we are in one boat and each is playing an important and irreplaceable role. The Arabic lyrics meeting the 17th century classical music puts the whole output in another context. That state of confusion is what my work is all about, it evokes attentive listening, and this is the whole idea behind my album Call for Prayer; you see, if there is no one really listening, the call for prayer would be pointless.”

Known to be ‘The ambassador of Arabic culture’, Benali’s concerts are carnivals of music and culture. Born in Belgium, raised in her hometown in southern Tunisia, and studying and living in Brussels, Benali has always enchanted her audience with the magic of Arabic lyrics. Be it a modern spiritual song, or an Um Kathoum classic, she manages to bring back that authentic air as she subtly connects to the unique musical realm the infusion creates.

Azan, her ninth album, is highly spiritual but not religious. Tunisia is the name of the first track. “It was a letter from my friend when the Tunisian revolution first started, it’s about my love for Tunisia, and my pride for the people. It is about how at the end of the day, all that is left is love, and the rest is insignificant.”

Another interesting song is Ra’aa Al-Barq (saw lightning) by Sufi pillar Ibn Arabi, and composed by Benali. The lyrics go: "Saw an eastward lightning so he longed for the east, and if it sparkled westerly, he would have longed for the west, my love is for the brilliance and its hint, not for the places or clod."

Since 1997, Benali has managed to carve her unique print on the music scene. With dozens of concerts worldwide, she enchanted East and West with her unique ability to connect with audiences. In 2008, she won the world of music award for best world music song, presented by independent British organisation ‘We are Listening,’ and in 2013 she was recognised for having one of the best 10 concerts by the New York Times.

With nine albums to date, Benali continues to be the connection point between different realms of musical realities. She sails with ease and passion amid the authentic meanings and multiple layers of cultures and carefully listens.

“To me, the music supports the lyrics and not the other way around; for the word has its own music to be heard, the music being minimalistic yet is very powerful, for it takes the audience to a state of meditation even if they do not understand the lyrics, they feel them.”

As free as she is, Benali believes in the "law of freedom."

“It’s like having a base that we all agree upon and within this base we are able to create, without it we would be really limited,” she explained.

Benali explained that in this album as well as all her previous work, she did not translate the Arabic lyrics to the music arrangers; she just conveyed one element and let their imagination delve into their feelings and create.

“Despite our differences, we all respond to music, for it is a universal language that reveals the truth,” she told Ahram Online.

Though she had to launch her CD online, being a graphic designer, she designed the cover as well, and despite the cancellation of many concerts due to the global confinement, Benali believed that the mandatory vacation is more of a miracle.

"It’s a God given chance to slow down, reconsider our life patterns and focus on what really matters."

To Benali, confinement meant more quality time at a home that is warm with the presence of family and good company. It also reassured her that her art is her true calling.

Meanwhile, Benali collaborated with iconic Egyptian jewellery designer Azza Fahmy where she created short videos singing some of the verses that Azza Fahmy illustrated in her designs, pegged to Sufi and authentic Egyptian lyrics. Fil Beit Mawal (a mawal is an authentic genre of Arabic songs). Playing on the word “beit,” which means a house as well as a poetry verse in Arabic, the series is featured, edited and created by Benali and streamed on YouTube.

‘Of souls that are eternally connected’ is her famous hashtag, and indeed that is what her work is all about.

Check out Ghalia Benali's YouTube channel here.

Ghalia Benali

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