“I don’t pretend to have very strong political positions,” singer Emel Mathlouthi, the Tunisian element in Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy’s Ramadan nights last year, said. “But I try to talk about what I’m feeling: freedom.”
This year another Tunisian, Abir Nasraoui, was invited to perform as part of the Spring Fest themed “Music, Freedom, and Social Justice.”
“Love, separation, passion” are themes Nasraoui enumerates to introduce her latest album “Heyma” (Wanderings) to Daily News Egypt. “It describes a woman in all her states, in her wisdom, in her nostalgia,” adds the artist.
“The release of the CD was a revolution for me,” Nasraoui tells DNE, stretching the connection with the Tunisian uprising, if only just a little. Her first album nevertheless also happens to be the first Tunisian album released after the Tunisian revolution.
Oriental instruments and the dialect of Nasraoui’s hometown Kasserine blend with the non-native guitar and Indian tabla. The result is an album geared to a world audience, replete with translations and explanations.
The lyrics of “Heyma” written by poet Leila El-Mekki are not rosy: at best they describe an emotional landscape tortured by the negligence of a lover or separation from family; at their bleakest interpretation, they cast a cynical shadow on the nature of the world.
But the mood of these wanderings is ably guided by the composer Skander Guetari into one that is upbeat and sometimes even victorious. “Zman El-Waguel” (The Era of a Victor), which opens with “Your self-worth is your only friend / Do not be tricked by a companion,” also opens with a pleasant beat.
Complimented by the melodic sweetness of Nasraoui’s vocals, the cynicism is also not without good counsel and humor: “If money fills your pocket / Here is my advice, keep it to yourself.” The world may be unfair and untrustworthy, but it is a world that can be endured.
Similarly, the number “Sayes” (Gently), that calls upon the powerful to stop cruelty to women, acts as a song of warning and wisdom. “The Pyramids,” remark the words, “are merely the tombs of those who built them.” Again the lyrics carry the lilt of an inward laughter, one that is privately familiar of the workings of the world.
“Ethnaya Wassa” (The Paths Seem Easy) provides counsel to a young woman from one that has seen more of the world. The regular rhythmic music acknowledges that life may seem breezy, that it may seem you have a hold of the reins, but the lyrics warn the listener, “young girl, don’t hurry.”
The victorious notes of the other songs are lost in numbers such as “Ya Nar” (Ardor), and even the brief spirited respite does not save the song from its somber notes of defeat. Similarly, “Ya Ain” (Eyes) drowns in self-absorbed sentimentality, but is kept afloat by the oud strings.
Nasraoui’s strength undoubtedly lies in the songs in which you can discern a smile, especially in lyrics that appear not to warrant one.
This was not her first visit to Egypt. Nasraoui first performed at the Cairo Opera House as part of the “Tunisian Culture Week” in 1997. She performed in two subsequent years with Palestinian oud maestro Naseer Shammaa again at the Opera House.
Almost 12 years later, the artist presented from her Tunisian heritage at the Geneina Theater. “Taht El-Yasmina” (Under the Jasmine) and “Lammoni Elly Gharo Mini” (The Jealous Ones Blamed Me) are songs from the repertoire of the Tunisian legend Hedi Jouini. Following the revolution, Nasraoui also wrote a song titled “Horreya” (Freedom), presented at Geneina.
Since 2001, Nasraoui has lived in Paris where she acquired her diploma in Ethnomusicology and experimented with other musical forms, including Spanish and Argentinean music from which emerged an Arabic tango. She previously studied at the Institute of Music in Tunis.
The artist has yet to revisit Tunisia since the revolution. Commitments towards her work and the current album prevented her from returning to her home country, where her parents live, Nasraoui said. After her concert in Lyons on May 9, she hopes to visit Tunisia.
Borne out of some deliberation and effort, Nasraoui’s is a talent to be recognized, and one that represents Tunisian dialect and rhythms even as it interacts with world ingredients in the melting pot of Paris. But though love, passion, and longing represent shared emotions, to have them represent the revolution would be wandering a little too far off course.
For more information on the artist, visit http://www.myspace.com/abirnasraoui.