Emel Mathlouthi was on tour in Tunisia when the country’s uprising began in December 2010. That week, the singer, who became a powerful voice of the Jasmine revolution, gave a concert in the coastal city of Sfax. “We didn’t know his name yet,” she says of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable seller whose desperate protest triggered the Arab spring. “But I dedicated my songs to the young man who’d set himself alight, and the town that was fighting for dignity. Nobody was talking that way on a public stage.”
Tunis-born, Mathlouthi had spent the previous three years in Paris as a singer, composer and guitarist, with a repertoire that vented a yearning for freedom, particularly among the young. When the nervous concert organiser in Sfax implored her not to sing protest songs, she said: “How can I do that? I don’t have any others. The concert will be 10 minutes.”
Mathlouthi and her band, along with other outspoken Tunisian musicians, such as Hamada Ben Amor, better known as the rapper El Général, played a part in breaking years of silence. They assailed what she describes in “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” (Poor Tunisia) as a fear taught in school and “embedded in their minds”.
I meet the 30-year-old Mathlouthi in the Renaissance hotel at London’s St Pancras station, the day after the launch concert in Paris for her first full album, Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free). Small and striking in a short black lace dress and sturdy boots, lavish curls tied back, she says her spirits have been revived amid the hotel’s soaring, neogothic architecture. Performing later with violinist Zied Zouari at the Rich Mix café-bar in Shoreditch, east London, she is mesmerising, unleashing a stunningly assured vocal range, from deep, breathy whispers and mellifluous sweetness to full-throated power. If her sincerity evokes folk legend Joan Baez, a big influence on Mathlouthi, she can strike the guitar with a force that owes more to her rock heroes such as Radiohead.
While her finely rendered Middle Eastern melodies, with pained lyrics of separation and longing, recall the Lebanese diva Fairouz, Mathlouthi is less romantic than revolutionary. She sings mainly in classical Arabic or Tunisian dialect (with forays into English and French). Her self-produced album marries a lyrical purity of voice with western strings, Maghrebi percussion and electronica – a driving mix oversimplified as “Arabic trip-hop”. In fact, the urban, Mediterranean meld is more original. She inhabits, and makes her own, elements from rock and folk, fado and flamenco, Celtic and Tzigane, north African gnawa and rai. There is even a Russian choir.
“I don’t want to focus on a specific style but to express myself naturally,” she says. “My music is a mirror for all these influences.” Partly inspired by cinema (she admires Iranian films and British director Ken Loach), her aim is to “create atmosphere and a universe around every song, not just voice and a couple of instruments”.
Each song develops like a narrative. Dedicated to those who died to free her country, the album includes tracks that formed a soundtrack to the revolution. Yet while there are samples of Arab spring chants and President Ben Ali’s speech before he fled to Saudi Arabia, the songs were written before 2009. “Ethnia Twila” (The Road is Long) is a nostalgic dirge with an echoing background beat, inspired by Pink Floyd and psychedelia, written when she arrived in France in 2007.
Born in 1982, she was five when Ben Ali’s 23-year rule began. Although she grew up in the Tunis suburb of Ibn Sina “open-minded and free to think”, dictatorship struck the family. Her father, a leftwing radical in 1960s Paris, lost his job teaching history at the elite National School of Administration over trade union activities. “It was hard for my mum, working full time at primary school. My father wanted to be a professor in the university of Tunis but they never let him because he always wanted to say what he thought – he didn’t like the corruption of minds.”
Along with her father’s classical and jazz recordings, she admired his vintage protest songs, from Bob Dylan to Victor Jara. She was captivated by the blind Egyptian troubadour Sheikh Imam, whom she sees as a proto-rapper – “very free in his way of expressing subjects and composing”.
Studying graphic design at Tunis University, she found release and rebellion in rock, founding her own band, Idiom. She switched to Arabic after adapting songs by the Lebanese Marcel Khalifé from oud to guitar. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish inspired her song “Dhalem” (Tyrant), whose sweet transcendence builds into loud defiance. “I wrote that, even if you kill or imprison me, I will write songs. I’ll be eternal, and time will erase you.”
In 2007 Mathlouthi fled an atmosphere in which creativity was stifled. “I couldn’t reach media or festivals, and if I’d stayed, I might have been stopped.” She wrote the album’s title track that year, to lyrics written for her by Amin El Ghozzi. It was first performed, with a symbolism she underlines, at the Bastille, and became a rallying cry in Tunisia via an online video. She was at the first protests in Tunis in December 2010. “Everybody was turned inward and afraid. As an artist, I wanted to show my face and my support.”
As she was leaving for the airport, her Facebook fan page was erased in a crackdown on cyber dissent. Her instant response was to create another: “My only existence as an artist was on the internet. What I do takes importance as I share it with my compatriots.” When Ben Ali fled, she sang at a tribute for martyred protesters. Only then was Kelmti Horra openly broadcast on Tunisian radio.
One year on, her song “14 January” was released online, to mark the tyrant’s fall. “That was one of the best days. Everybody was together on the street, all ages. They’ll never be so united again.” She voted for a “progressive party” in elections last October but is sceptical of politicians’ concessions to Islamist parties. She does not see women’s rights as under immediate threat, saying Tunisian women are very powerful (“If not for my mother, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now”). Yet, while a “revolution in the mind” has taken place, “it’s not over, for women or for the country.”
‘Kelmti Horra’ is out on World Village – Harmonia Mundi. Emel Mathlouthi plays at a free francophone festival in Trafalgar Square, London, Saturday