Emel Mathlouthi: The Fairuz of her generation

Farah Montasser, Sunday 28 Apr 2013

Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi, labelled as the Middle East's new Fairuz, speaks to Ahram Online in advance of her concert on Thursday, 25 April, part of the D-CAF 2013

Emel Mathlouthi, the young "Fairuz" (Photo: Farah Montasser)

It is the pure voice from outside the Qasr Al-Nil Cinema Theatre in downtown Cairo that captures passers-by. Although it is still a few hours prior to the concert and technicians still work on fine-tuning sound and light, there she stood gracefully – guitar in hand – and a voice so strong and pure, undisrupted by the sound adjustments.

Great posture, captivating voice and appealing music... A fusion of new folk and electro is what you get with 30-year-old Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi. She is considered by many an upcoming talent and has been compared to the Middle East's legendary Fairuz.

"I believe our oriental music should be infused with the various international genres of today to be able to develop and grow and, most importantly, present a new take on music that differentiates us from the rest of the world," Mathlouthi told Ahram Online.

When hearing that she reminds many of Fairuz, she comments, blushing: "It's an honour; I don't know what to say."

Born and raised in Tunisia, Mathlouthi fell in love with music at an early age. "As far as I remember, I grew fond of music and theatre. I used to sing and act alone in my room," she remembers.

Influenced by pop music, especially that of the US, Mathlouthi and her friends formed their first rock music band during their college years. Surprisingly, she didn't major in music.

"I studied mathematical physics and then changed my major to graphic design," she reveals.

Aside from western pop music, Mathlouthi grew up listening to a lot of old jazz and Egypt's Sheikh Imam. "This was the music my father listened to constantly and, by default, I too became a huge fan."

International icons such as Bob Dylan and folk singer Joan Baez were among the many influences of Mathlouthi's music. However, it was the intellect and spirit of Sheikh Imam and Marcel Khalife that created Emel Mathlouthy, as she is known today.

"I admit that my music is first and foremost influenced by the music of Sheikh Imam and Marcel Khalife," she explains. "In Imam, I found purity and nationhood, while Khalife's music is so emotional and more infused with classical music."

Emel Mathlouthi during rehearsal (Photo: Farah Montasser)

With her college rock band performing small gigs at university, the young star's passion for music grew.

"I taught myself guitar and, following graduation, I moved to France where I wanted to have an international music career," she says.

It was at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris where the magic happened. There, young artists are offered different residency programmes to study and develop their art.

"I had my own studio and got to meet many other enthusiasts like myself from around the globe," she recalls.

Not only does Mathlouthi sing and play guitar, but her other talents developed by the day. Today, she writes her own songs too.

The young singer co-worked on composing her album, Kelmeti Horra (My Word is Free) between 2005 and 2009. The single of the same name gave Mathlouthi a career boost, and today it is counted among Tunisia's popular revolutionary songs.

"On many occasions in Tunisia, I sang Kelmeti Horra, especially when the revolution took place; this is when the song was labelled 'revolutionary' and was sung by crowds during protests. I was constantly asked to sing it," she says.

Emel Mathlouthi during rehearsal (Photo: Farah Montasser)

Another major song the album includes is Fe Bali (On My Mind), which, during Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, she dedicated to Bouazizi. The song tells the story Che Guevara.

"Bouazizi became Che Guevara to me and this song honours him," she says.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 after police confiscated his cart and humiliated him. His act triggered the Tunisian revolution in February 2011, and then the Arab Spring.

"For artists in Tunisia, as is the case in Egypt but to a lesser extent, the challenge is evident as we fight for our rights and stand against the Islamist movement that is trying to form yet another dictatorship," she asserts, emphasising how dangerous it is to have a theocracy.

"Tunisians are religiously moderate yet westernised, and the social gaps among the people are not as drastic as is the case in Egypt, not to mention its small size and population. So I think we can combat any oppression that comes our way," Mathlouthi states, yet admitting that challenges exist.

As for Egyptians, Emel Mathlouthi is even more hopeful. "I see the Egyptians today more eager to change and I felt freedom when I first landed," she says.

Mathlouthi's first visit to Egypt was in 2009 and, by comparison, she finds Egyptians today more at ease and "free."

Emel Mathlouthi on stage performing at D-CAF's concert night, Thursday 25 April (Photo: D-CAF)

For the "free" Egyptians, Mathlouthi's concert at Qasr Al-Nil Cinema Theatre in downtown Cairo featured some songs from the 'Kelmti Horra' album, in addition to a few new songs that will be featured in her soon-to-be-released album in Tunisia, Canada and France.

Without revealing the name of her new album, Mathlouthi at the concert highlighted the importance of "pen and paper" to mankind, for they are the hope for a better educated and developed future for Egypt and the Arab world.

"Pen and paper are our ammunition today in this war of ignorance we were in," she says.

Honouring Sheikh Imam of Egypt, Mathlouthi delighted audiences with some of his patriotic pieces.

"Oh, how I wished that he was here witnessing this great revolution… a revolution which he called for all his life," she sighs.

Following her concert in Cairo on Thursday, 25 April, she will travel back to Tunisia for a number of concerts before embarking on her international tour, which will include Istanbul, New York, Germany and Canada.

Concluding her discussion with Ahram Online, Mathlouthi revealed one of her wishes: "I hope Ahmed Fouad Negm could have listened to me or heard of me because this man – along with Sheikh Imam – has influenced my life tremendously with their songs. I owe it all to them."

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