Emel Mathlouthi, Heroine of the Arab Spring, Brings Her Transcendent Voice and Revolutionary Songs to New York
Last night Tunisian-born, Paris-based singer and bandleader Emel Mathlouthi treated a sold-out crowd at Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute to a performance whose stripped-down, intimate format did nothing to diminish the volcanic intensity and raw power of her symphonic, revolutionary Middle Eastern art-rock anthems. Singing in Arabic with a couple of extremely successful ventures into English, Mathlouthi played both acoustic and electric guitars with an edgy efficiency, backed by guitarist Karim Attoumane, whose ethereal, majestically atmospheric lines gave the songs heft and bulk, and pianist Emmanuel Trouve, whose elegant chromatics enhanced both the songs’ neoromantic European and moodily levantine passages (in addition to a biting Doors quote, in a nod to the late Ray Manzarek).
Technically speaking, Mathlouthi is an astonishingly powerful, individualistic singer, maintaining an almost otherworldly clarity from the depths to the heights of what could be a four-octave range, whether with a ghostly whisper or a gale-force wail. Few other singers in the world have so much raw power at their disposal. With that kind of voice, Mathlouthi can afford to be straightforward, and she usually is, although the two most exhilarating moments of the concert were when she hit a rapidfire, serpentine Middle Eastern glissando, and when she went to the absolute top of her register during a riveting, angst-fueled rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that put to shame any other version including the original.
Emotionally, Mathlouthi vents a venomous contempt for and hostility to oppression, but more than anything else, she gives voice to longing. But the longing she evokes isn’t a solipsistic desire for attention or affection: it’s a longing for freedom – and a chance to transcend the hellish experience of the battle for it. She wasted no time in disdainfully explaining that the reason that the audience was seeing only a trio onstage was because that two of her Tunisian bandmates had been denied US visas. But at the end of the show, after a poignant, dynamically bristling version of her folk rock-flavored signature song, Kelmti Horra (Freedom of Speech, one of the iconic anthems of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring) she backed away from the mic, retreated toward the piano and then twirled, jaunty and triumphant, knowing that she was about to dance away victorious.
Ornate and intricately intertwining as her songs are, they’re not art for art’s sake. Mathlouthi knows that she and others like her are a dictator’s worst enemy, and she revels in that, if with an understandable bitteness. “The pen and paper are the strongest, most powerful things in the world,” she reaffirmed as the band launched into a broodingly swaying minor-key ballad. Although what she was doing with pen and paper endangered her life in Tunisia to the point of forcing her into exile, ultimately they saved her and others like her. She dedicated the shapeshifting anthem Ethnia Twila (The Long Road), with its middle period Pink Floyd sweep and majesty, to “the brave and courageous people who fight for freedom and dignity.”
As the show went on, Mathlouthi mimicked oud voicings on her guitar via a series of nimble pull-offs, used a series of loop effects to sing Bjork possibly better than Bjork does herself, brought to mind Randi Russo or early PJ Harvey with a hypnotic, insistent, slow-burning anthem and eventually took the intensity to a searing peak with Ma Ikit (Not Found). “I cannot find a melody strong enough to break human hatred,” she intoned before building the song to an imploring, exhausted crescendo. Whether or not the audience understood the lyrics -and many did, and spontaneously clapped along in several places – it was impossible not be drawn into the drama of a battle whose conclusion is ultimately ours to either concede, or to join in with Mathlouthi and reach for victory.
Thanks to the French Institute, here’s some great Youtube footage of the early part of the concert: that Manzarek quote is at 6:35.