Emel Mathlouthi's voice is an instrument of change
NORTH ADAMS — Over a light, springing beat and sombre strings, a woman is singing to a sea of lights:
"I am free, and my word is free."
A vast crowd has come to its feet.
This past year, as she worked on a new album, Tunisian composer, singer and songwriter Emel Mathlouthi was invited to perform at the ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"It was beyond anything I could have expected," she said in a phone interview from New York City.
It was spiritual and solemn — a special moment for her and Tunisia — her most intense performance ever. She gave two performances there, she said, one at the ceremony and one in concert, and she found singing at the ceremony even more intense in that official time and place.
Next week, she is coming here. Mathlouthi will perform in the final concert of this spring's MCLA Presents! series at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday.
Michelle Daly, Massachusetts College of Liberal Art's Berkshire Cultural Resource Center's Program Coordinator, invited her a year ago, in her first year of programming the series.
Daly first heard Mathlouthi perform at the annual world music globalFEST at Webtser Hall in Brooklyn in January 2015.
"I was blown away by her, by the musicality of her voice," she said.
She performed with palpable power and confidence, Daly said. At one point in the concert, the power went out. Mathlouthi's microphone went silent without warning.
"She just broke into a traditional song and belted," Daly said. "I was captivated."
Mathlouthi began performing in Tunisia as a student, more than a decade ago. She recalled singing covers of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry set to music. Darwish is a well-known Palestinian poet, she said, full of life and love, committed and strong, and she loved performing those charged songs in Arabic with her guitar. Mathlouthi brought her own sound to the music, rhythmic and tough, electric and mature.
When she sang in Tunisia in 2006 and 2007, radio and television were controlled by the government. By 2008, Mathlouthi had been kept off the airwaves and had moved to Paris to continue her music.
One of her first influences Joan Baez.
"What she was able to do on stage, alone with her voice and guitar, and touch thousands of people, really encouraged me," Mathlouthi said. "It gave me strength. The most powerful thing in music is emotion — if you believe what you're singing you can change many things."
She was about to touch thousands of people herself. In 2006, she began performing "Kelmti Horra," a song she composed to lyrics written by a friend, Amin El Ghozzi. He offered her the words, she said, because she was a singer starting to show some engagement and interest and political empathy. Composing it challenged her then-usual process of writing songs to feel better, but she came to it feeling a powerful hope. The melody that came to her, the strength to bring people together, came naturally — the right tone and rhythm with text.
In 2010, as the Tunisian Revolution touched off the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East, her performance went live on the internet — and spread.
"It travelled on web for years," she said, "and that's what made it powerful."
That song became an anthem, and the name of her first album in 2012, and it brought her to the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony.
Since 2010, she has performed across the world, and she has written new music. In 2016 she looks forward to releasing a new album, she said, with songs she has worked on for years.
"They are about being human, fragile, how small we can be," she said. "As soon as we are different or more sensitive than we should be. They are songs about how much we can endure, watching how much has gone wrong."
When people are homeless, having to leave their families, she sees humans vulnerable to large political structures.
"We tend to send the message everyone has to work, grow, never give up or stop struggling, keep fighting," she said, "But I don't think anyone should have to struggle."
In making this album, she has enjoyed working with musicians from many parts of the world, from Sweden to Iceland to North Africa.
"I spent a long time searching for people to work with," she said, "people who are open-minded and could go beyond the language and see the potential of the songs."
She wanted people who would fall into the melodies. These collaborations feel organic to her, pure and improvised.
"It took me long time to be on a path I wanted to be on," she said. "A lot of people in this field don't encourage you to believe in what you feel — I wanted to be a big part of the production of albums, and I felt wasn't trusted that way. I'm happy this album sounds like me and something I'm involved in."
As an artist from Tunisia who doesn't sing in English, she wants to be recognized for her music — not only for her background, her history and her home country.
"The industry tends to put labels on someone to get interest," she said, "and I think that's wrong. I hope I will get attention for my work, my sound and my music, first."
Listening to her sing live in Arabic, Daly agreed.
"I can feel the power, the emotion," she said. "I didn't have to understand the words to feel the music."
Who: Singer, songwriter, composer, guitarist Emel Mathlouthi
When: Next Thursday (March 31) evening at 7:30
Where: Church Street Center, Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium, MCLA (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts), 375 Church St., North Adams
Tickets: $12 (general admission); $8 (MCLA alumni); $5 (MCLA faculty and staff, and non-MCLA students); $2 (MCLA students)
Information: 413-662-5320; mcla.edu/About_MCLA/area/bcrc/mclapresents
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