For the first time since her last performance in Cairo in 1999, Abir Nasrawi returns with a cultural performance celebrating the freedom of Tunisia and Egypt at this year’s Spring Music Festival entitled “Music, Freedom, Equality” on 29 April. Organised by Al Mawred Al Thakafy - Culture Resource, the Spring Music Festival features artists, singers, and bands from around the Arab world to celebrate their freedom and unity at El Genaina Theatre at Al-Azhar Park.
The night was breezy and pleasant for the audience to sit in the small open-air stage and await the Tunisian sounds to arise. With the seats half full, Abir Nasrawi took to the stage in a colourful traditional Tunisian costume, greeting guests with: "Welcome freed nation.” As the Tunisian sounds filled the air, one song after the other, Nasrawi managed to capture the imaginations and moods of all the attendees; the more rhythms the higher the cheers.
Although the small size of audience, the stage was mostly occupied by young children who were quiet at all times and enjoying the Tunisian presentation in front of them. Some held cell phones high to capture the singer and her band, while others only clapped during the songs and slowly waved their small bodies following the smooth rhythms of Tunis. It is one of the very minimal performances were children and adolescence enjoy a socio-political concert.
Although during the rehearsal the Nasrawi’s performace was much better than during the concert itself, yet as an audience you get to hear the harmonious melodies of Tunis; the combination of each song allowed each instrument to be heard on its own while accompanying each other. Nasrawi is determined to produce a revolutionised oriental music and with this unusual musical complex, she mastered. Beautifully composed music that takes you directly to Tunis and in an instant you feel part of the Tunisian culture. As a singer, Nasrawi has a soft passionate voice that expresses her joy and pride of being Tunisian. Her singing indeed came from the heart but it is the music that was magical.
Nasrawi began with the significant traditional songs of Tunisia, including “Ya Zahratan Fe Khayali” (Oh, Flowers of my Imagination), and “Lamouni Eli Gharo Menni” (Those Who Envy Me Blame Me), paying tribute to her hometown Kasserine in central Tunisia, where the Tunisian revolution first erupted. Her concert featured her first album Heyma, which debuted in Paris right after the Tunisian revolution and the ousting of former Tunisian President Zein Al Abeddin Bin Ali, as she recalls, “By pure chance!”
Heyma (Wanderings) captures Nasrawi’s passion for oriental music and sums up her Tunisian musical upbringing coloured by her experience living in France, producing this jazz-pop style project. Her collection of songs feature an improbable mixture of sounds and rhythms drawn from many different sources, harmoniously combining oriental sounds with the Indian table (drum) and reggae, as Tunisian journalist Serra Grira described. Some Spanish stlyes, like flamenco, are even infused in her music. Heyma is a collaboration of Abir Nasrawi, poet Leila El Mekki and composer Skander Guetari.
“Ya Nar” (Ardour), written by El Mekki, is one of the songs that is the most favoured by Nasrawi for the emotions and sufferings it talks about. In her album, Nasrawi wanted to live the memory of her hometown Kasserine. Most of her songs are written in the city’s dialect. “It is the dialect of my grandmother and forefathers; and even today a lot of my family members still talk in that dialect,” she says.
“My music is international. Since my residing in Paris, I captured the mix of cultures that inhabit France and have developed my own melodies to produce this project,” she told Ahram Online. “I wanted to revive the oriental music I was brought up with and revolutionise it a bit,” she explains during her last rehearsal prior to the concert.
Although Nasrawi is here to celebrate the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, she hasn’t been to Tunisia since 2001 after she left to study and work in Paris. Her first stop in the Middle East had been Egypt because of Al Mawred Al Thakafy's invitation to participate in this year’s festival. “As much as I am thrilled with the political changes that took place in Tunisia, I had to attend to business before I go back home,” she says.
“I can’t wait to return home. It has been tough on me and on many Tunisians abroad to witness the revolution overseas. We were always updated with what’s happening on ground of course and dreaded the outcome,” she told Ahram Online.
Being brought up in a close-knit musical family during the Abdel Aziz Bouteflika reign followed by Bin Ali, Nasrawi became a witness to the cultural and social changes that occurred. “During Bouteflika’s presidency, traditional Tunisian music was alive; local songs and singers, as they call them today, were only played at private events for their lack of culture and cheap taste. Whereas during Bin Ali, they occupied the entire musical scene killing our heritage and destroying our high taste of music,” she states.
“In Egypt, I believe that the same scenario occurred,” she says. Poor lyrics and tunes have entered into the business creating what we have today, according to her analysis “These dictatorships only wanted to keep us ignorant,” she comments, revealing her disgust with Bin Ali.
Although Tunisians and Egyptians have kicked out their authoritarian regimes, they fear chaos and the instability that is threatening both societies. Chaos has even spread to the music industry; All singers have taken the “Revolution trend” road, chanting only in the name of 25 January in Egypt’s case. However, as an artist, Nasrawi sees a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
“It is chaotic now but this is bearable. Dictatorship had been killing everything we had from development and literature to culture and taste,” she says. “We have given birth to freedom and like a born infant we have to let it grow while guiding it through,” she explains.
“Mistakes are being made and will continue until we get hold of this new system and adapt to it,” she says. “We see all singers divert to sing to both revolutions, creating a mess. It is good that there are those who sing for freedom and revolution but it should not be a trend. Life goes on and it is important to present all other feelings and colours of life to help build what has been destroyed by the hands of tyrants,” she states.
Tunisian singer and songwriter Abir Nasrawi started to sing at age four. “My father would make me listen to Arab legends like Oum Kalthoum, Asmahan, Abdel Wahab, and Salah Abdelhay, who I grew to love and admire,” she says. At eight her family was surprised to see Nasrawi mastering the tones of one of Oum Kalthoum’s songs.
Nasrawi took it from there and began studying music with well-known musicians including Mohamed Saada, Abdelhamid Ben Iljiya, a specialist of Malouf and Andalusian musical heritage. She earned a Master’s Degree in Musical Science from the Institute of Music in Tunis and a Postgraduate Diploma in Ethnomusicology from the Sorbonne in Paris. She currently resides in Paris and works at Radio Monte-Carlo Doualiya.