Emel Mathlouthi Early Life
Emel Mathlouthi, born 11 January 1982, isn’t interested in being a nice girl. She isn’t fond of being typecast as an exotic North African. And she positively bristles at being labeled as an activist whose music and art are ancillary to a message. Mathlouthi began singing while she was still a child growing up in the suburbs of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital city alongside the Mediterranean coastline. By the time she was in college, she was fronting a metal band. (Mathlouthi possesses a sweet, high voice, but woe to anyone who misreads those qualities as fragility or weakness.) Soon, she was writing songs that were deeply critical of the government of the then-leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2008, she moved to France, convinced that her career would founder if she stayed in her native country.
Mathlouthi knew that she was running right up against the strictures of the regime but she persisted — and kept right on singing about Tunisia and about oppression. Certain Tunisian DJs would try to sneak her songs onto their playlists at odd hours, but by the time she began singing “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” [Poor Tunisia], with lyrics like “Fear resides in their bones, being mute is their lot” — the die was cast. Emel rose to fame after a video of her performing her song “Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free)” generated millions of views throughout the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. That song served as the anthem for the Arab Spring, gave its name to her debut album ‘Kelmti Horra’, and took her to the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Concert where she performed it to thunderous applause.
Who is Emel Mathlouthi?
Emel Mathlouthi, Tunisian singer and songwriter, born 11 January 1982, began writing guitar-based songs with political messages when she was a student in the mid-2000s. By 2008 her songs had gained enough of a profile to have been banned from radio by the Tunisian government, and Mathlouthi moved to Paris to pursue her music unfettered by censorship and governmental oppression. By 2012, her debut album, Kelmti Horra, arrived, merging her folkier beginnings with electronic elements inspired by influences like Björk and Massive Attack.
Political Activist and the ‘Kelmti Horra’
The album was a huge success, with some songs being adopted as unofficial anthems of political uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The years that followed saw Mathlouthi’s fame as both a musician and a political force grow, as she delivered her messages of liberation and fearless resistance in concerts and public appearances around the world. Her second album, Ensen, materialized in the early months of 2017.
Emel Mathlouthi rose to prominence after her 2007 recording “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)” became a viral anthem during the Arab Spring, earning her the title “voice of the Tunisian revolution” and eventually an invitation to perform at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Her powerful, heartfelt music defies genres, melding together electronica, Tunisian textures and a cinematic universe.
“Here’s a World Diva with a difference. Mathlouthi’s lament for her homeland, ‘Ya Tounes Ya Meskina’ (Poor Tunisia), became a soundtrack to uprising, along with the celebratory ‘Kelmti Horra’ (My Word is Free). Arriving after several years of exile in France, this debut twists together Arabic roots with western flavours – some rock (Mathlouthi plays guitar and cites Joan Baez as an influence) but mostly cavernous trip-hop. The mix works well on stand-outs ‘Dhalem’ and ‘Ma Lkit’, where Mathlouthi’s striking vocals find most melody; elsewhere, the understandably serious mood of protest and sadness flatlines somewhat. A powerful new voice, none the less.” – Neil Spencer.
Combining the political and the personal, Emel expresses not just her feelings but those of so many people. “It is important to me to try to give voice to the silenced. I also believe, though, that art is its own message, that especially when you come from a repressive place, or an ignored place, the simple act of saying, ‘Hey, I’m here,’ is important – the art of presence and insistence.”
Emel Mathlouthi was in Tunisia for one of those illicit tours when a despairing street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010 — a pivotal moment that sparked what became first Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, and then, in a string of regional uprisings, the Arab Spring.
In 2010, for the first time of my life, I had three gigs booked in Tunisia. I’d never had the opportunity to sing in a place other than the capital. So I was really excited. And when I went there, the revolution started. I had this Tunisian blogger and activist with me on the road, and she was like, “This guy set himself on fire today.” I was singing that night, and the guy who was organizing the concert was like, “Listen, be a good girl. I don’t want to lose my job. I’m sure you have a pretty voice. I’m sure you’re going to find very nice songs to sing tonight.” But my band just looked at each other and we said, “Let’s do it. We don’t have any choice. We have to sing those songs.”
At some point I took the mic and said, “Somebody set himself on fire, and some people are fighting for their lives now while nobody from the government apparently cares. We have to support these people because they’re just asking for work. They’re just asking for dignity.” Then we hit the road and came back to the capital and took part in the first protests. I was like, “Wow, this is really finally happening.” I didn’t believe that it would happen while I was still alive.
“Kelmti Horra” had already become a well-known song in the Tunisian underground by then. But finally, on one remarkable January day just weeks after Bouazizi took his desperate step, Mathlouthi stood up in a crowd of demonstrators along the packed Avenue Habib Bourguiba — the largest boulevard in Tunis — to sing her signature song. The ground was already shifting under everyone’s feet: Within days, President Ben Ali and his family had fled the country.
In the midst of the protests on Habib Bourguiba, Mathlouthi sang “Kelmti Horra” a cappella, media cameras and microphones shoved hastily in front of her, while the protesters immediately around her listened in rapt silence. And she sings, you can hear the bristling energy of other demonstrators shouting slogans in the distance, in what becomes a strangely beautiful polyrhythm of revolution. And soon, “Kelmti Horra” was a song known and loved across the Middle East, as young activists began to imagine new futures for themselves, unbounded by the strictures and stiflings of the past.
That one song made Mathlouthi an international star; four years later, she was invited to sing it at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in a lush, big-stringed, grand arrangement that in its cinematic scale is, frankly, far less stirring than that badly shot video taken on Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
On her sophomore album, Ensen, Emel distills her blend of acoustic and electronic sounds into a style that’s even more uniquely her own, citing Ben Frost, Samaris and James Blake as influences. With several producers, including Valgeir Sigurðsson (Sigur Ros, Feist) and her main collaborator French/Tunisian producer Amine Metani, Emel recorded the new album across seven countries and two continents. “We recorded acoustic takes of the songs, using a lot of North African drumming.”
“This record is really about how we can be very vulnerable and be the force of this world at the same time. We have to connect with our humanity. It’s also a trip into my psyche and soul, and there’s a lot of abstraction. I like to play with the words as much as I play with sounds, to express the contrast that can be in me as a woman, but also as a Tunisian woman, as a musician, as a singer. There’s softness but there’s also fire.”
“I came to New York and started working with my friend, and we recorded the traditional instruments and percussions. We even recorded my Christmas tree, my necklaces, my notebooks, every kind of thing we could find. I was just looking and shaking things, and we started to see this is a path that is necessary when you work on music: You have to make everything possible, not necessarily with money, but from scratch.”
“I started approaching labels when I finished. It was really hard. I didn’t want to go to the world music scene. I got tired of always having that stamp. But the problem is that, as soon as the indie and electronic labels hear Arabic singing, they say: “Oh OK, world music.” At the same time, world music labels are like: “Oh my god, this is too different.” So I found myself like those people whose parents are immigrants, so they will never be considered really American or French, and when they go to Tunisia they aren’t really Tunisian either. It would be like sitting on two chairs.”
Then we started creating our own library of organic beats running the percussions through our homemade effects and setups. They sounded like nothing we’d ever heard.” “Ensen Dhaif (Helpless Human),” the title track, is propelled by sparkling gumbri (a Tunisian three stringed big bass lute, used in Gnawa music), feverish zukra (Tunisian flute), trance inducing bendirs (North African frame drums) and heavy kick drum.
Emel’s music has motivated many to express themselves, and she fights particularly hard to be a pillar of strength for women worldwide. “Everyone assumes there is a man directing or ‘pulling the strings’ behind a female artist” she says. “It is unbelievable the macho attitudes I’ve had to overcome to make this album. I hope people see Ensen as a reminder that women create every day and a testament to the strength it can take to do so.”
Blessed with an exceptionally wide vocal range and expressive voice, Emel Mathlouthi’s impassioned live performances go far beyond the sounds on the album.
“I never perform the same way twice. I am more of a show person than a studio artist; the songs have a second life once the recording is done. I’m very free with my vocals. My musicians adapt to any direction I want to take.”
‘Everywhere We Looked Was Burning’ Song
In 2019, Emel Mathlouthi announced the release of her new album ‘Everywhere We Looked Was Burning’. “The world needs rescuing, right?” Emel asks. “We need to rescue our senses because they’ve been hurt. They keep us from being completely evil. They let us awaken by poetry and art. They connect us to each other and make sense of our purpose. This song is like dawn where you can start seeing the first rays of light. It’s a moment to revive power.”
“Rescuer” is the second single to be taken from the album, following the release of “Footsteps” in March. For the first time, Emel sings almost entirely in English after previously only recording a handful of tracks in the language. The choice was informed by settling in New York with her family, discovering the “essential imagery” of poets Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Elliot, and John Ashbury, and “thinking back to how music in English was so important to me growing up.” She initially rented a house in Woodstock, NY and set off to “write about nature as well as the beauty and struggle of these times.”
Emel Mathlouthi: “Sometimes people get so interested that they say, “You should have the translation, we would love to know more about the lyrics.” But music is not about reading a book. Music is just about just letting yourself go. I’m talking about things, but I’m interested in letting them be interpreted. You can find some syllables to connect with; when you want to have a connection, you can have it.”
‘Everywhere We Looked Was Burning’ tracklist:
- Wakers Of The Wind
- This Place
- A Quiet Home
- Ana Wayek
- Does Anybody Sleep
- Everywhere We Looked Was Burning
Other album highlights include the vulnerable yet vital “Womb,” which welcomes a tender embrace after jagged cinematic orchestration and resonant piano. “As a mother, I have a responsibility to tell the truth as I show some kind of utopia to my kid,” she explains. “It’s a sci-fi scenario where this element brings strange harmony into the universe. I want to build a path for my children to fulfill their dreams.”
The album culminates with a rebirth in flames on the title track and closer “Everywhere We Looked Was Burning.” “After lava, you see those little green plants,” she says. “The music is not only about the bad things happening. There has to be something positive in the aftermath.” In the end, Emel realizes her own power for change.
Emel Mathlouthi: “I found in music some kind of therapy that could adjust all the extremes, like a hormone that could regulate all your extra hyperness and extra sadness. But sometimes I get very depressed—there are moments where I’m like, “I’m not super powerful, music is nothing.” It’s terrible now with all these [refugee] kids drowning, and all of this racism. I’m very, very sensitive. Every time I walk in the street, I feel bad about all these little things. Sometimes I don’t feel optimistic anymore. It seems like sometimes music can’t do anything. But I have to believe in something. It’s hard to be a musician, but at least I found a way to give a sense to my life. It helps just to remain healthy. To remain sane.”
Emel Mathlouthi Biography and Profile