Emel Mathlouthi

Photo: Alex + Iggy

Tunisian musician Emel Mathlouthi, known as Emel, is a visceral artist who prefers that you connect with her music on a purely emotional level, rather than study it in depth. But it is nearly impossible not to want to translate and analyze her Arabic words, once you know her story. With her unique blend of traditional Tunisian acoustic music, electronic beats and fiercely independent lyrics, her work gained widespread recognition after she recorded “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)” in 2007 and it became an anthem of the Arab Spring. She found herself being called “the voice of the Tunisian revolution” and was invited to perform at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

On Ensen, her second album, she incorporates diverse musical styles, with influences such as Joan Baez, Massive Attack, Björk and Egyptian protest singer Sheikh Imam. The album, released in February on Little Human / Partisan Records, was recorded across seven countries on two continents with several producers. This included her primary collaborator, French/Tunisian producer Amine Metani and Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Sigur Ros). The music has an expansive, cinematic feel that accompanies Emel’s powerful, heartfelt vocals.

Here is the official video for “Ensen Dhaif (Human, Helpless Human).”

Emel Mathlouthi now lives in New York, where she relocated after living for a while in Paris. In 2008 during the rule of Ben Ali, she was forced to move from Tunisia after her music was banned for her messages about personal freedom and government corruption. Her debut album Kelmti Horra was released on World Village in France in 2012. NPR covered her music in 2013, in a piece called “Emel Mathlouthi: Voice Of The Tunisian Revolution,” and fellow Tunisian singer and composer MC Rai said, “She has so much courage to sing that around that time. When the dictators in Tunisia, the old regime, were in the top of their power — and for her to even have the courage to sing that, when she was living still between France and Tunisia — I thought she really was a true artist, because that’s what the art is about.” Four years later, her music was once again at the center of a grassroots uprising, as she sang “Kelmti Horra” in the streets of Tunisia, hours before Ben Ali fled the country. Here are the lyrics, translated from Arabic.

You can learn much more about Emel Mathlouthi’s life, music and inspiration from an in-depth Pitchfork interview.

Emel is currently in Europe on tour, and she’ll be performing a string of dates across the U.S. beginning on May 3 in Washington, DC. See the list of shows below. Her new album can be purchased from Partisan Records (CD, vinyl or digital) or on iTunes.

5/03/2017 – Washington, DC – DC9
5/04/2017 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live
5/05/2017 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
5/06/2017 – New York, NY – (Le) Poisson Rouge
5/09/2017 – Evanston, IL – Evanston SPACE
5/10/2017 – Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center
5/13/2017 – Seattle, WA – Seattle Meany Center
5/14/2017 – Vancouver, BC – The Rio Theatre
5/15/2017 – Portland, OR – Newmark Theatre
5/16/2017 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish American Hall
5/17/2017 – Los Angeles, CA – Echo

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