Sounds: Emel Mathlouthi, Taking It to the Streets

Sounds: Emel Mathlouthi, Taking It to the Streets

When the late Gil Scott-Heron recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in 1970, he could not have anticipated the advent of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—all indispensable “broadcast” tools in the social uprisings of the Arab Spring. As founding father of political rap, he did, however, understand the power of music as a socio-political force, and he likely would have appreciated both the sound and the fury of Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi’s debut CD Kelmti Horra.

Before the album’s release on the World Village label in January of this year, its title track, which translates as “My Word Is Free,” had already become an anthem for rebels and dissenters who had taken to the streets of Tunis in late 2010 and early 2011.

The songs lyrics include these lines:

“I am free and my word is free/ Don’t forget the price of bread / Don’t forget he who sowed in us the seed of sorrow / Don’t forget he who betrayed us … I am the soul of those who do not forget / I am the voice of those who do not die.”

Mathlouthi sends the words soaring with her enthralling soprano (she names Joan Baez as an influence) over a solemn arrangement that features her acoustic guitar in a string section with violin, viola, and cello, plus hand percussion, balafon, and a vocal choir. It’s one of the starkest instrumental settings on the album, and that much more potent for it.

Programmed effects (samples, beats, treated vocals, drones, scratchy noises) move through most other tracks like broad storm patterns, the product of a trip-hop sensibility that Mathlouthi may have absorbed since moving to Paris in 2007 (or from working with the pioneering British producer/mixer Tricky).

But neither the rococo complexity and melodramatic atmospherics of the music nor the fact that nearly every song is sung in Arabic—Mathlouthi performs “Stranger” and a few lines of “Hinama” in English—obscure the emotional core of the artist’s intent. “This album tells the story of my Tunisia, the story of the dark years as seen through my eyes,” she writes in the liner notes, “… and through my immigrant tears, my suffering and my love of freedom.”

The notes also includes French and English translations of all the lyrics, making literal what Mathlouthi so eloquently conveys in sound, as in “Dhalem (Tyrant)”: “Kill me, and I will write songs / Wound me, and I will sing stories / … Melodies will rain down and dry up my tears / Time will claim you while they will live on.”

Kelmti Horra is available on iTunes and Amazon.

A northern California native, I received my BA from UCLA and an MA in History from UC Berkeley. I’ve worked as a mountain resort handyman and cook, drugstore clerk, college instructor, child care provider, soda jerk, freelance writer (music, food, travel), music radio host (KPFA 94.1 FM Berkeley), and magazine editor--at Acoustic Guitar, Oakland and Alameda Magazines, and currently, AFAR.