Fifty years ago, it was Americans who were writing some of the most powerful and resonant protest anthems and songs of freedom; a generation later, it was the British. Today, it’s the people of the Arabic-speaking world. To fail to acknowledge these artists at this moment, as their message of transformation and genuine hope spreads around the globe, would be the same as dismissing Bob Dylan in 1964 or the Clash in 1979. A star in France where she moved after leaving her native Tunisia, singer/guitarist Emel Mathlouthi became to last year’s Tunisian revolution what Warda was for the Algerians a half-century ago: a lightning rod, and a particularly fearless one. Mathlouthi’s album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “Freedom of Speech”) is out recently worldwide from World Village Music – while the obvious audience is an Arabic-speaking one, it’s a riveting listen whether or not you understand the lyrics.
By any standard, Mathlouthi is an extraordinary singer, highly nuanced, evoking an intense tenderness yet often direct to the point of being confrontational. She cites both Dylan and Cheikh Imam as influences, and draws as much from American soul music and new wave rock like Siouxsie & the Banshees as she does from Arabic pop and classical styles, often layering her vocals into a mighty, ornate wall of harmonies. Behind her, violin and piano stand out stark and plaintive against murky low-register keyboard drones and the ominous boom or thud of a drum machine or percussion loop. This is haunted, exhausted, angry, bitter, wounded wartime music, with the inescapable message that if we continue to let the world be run by dictators and speculators, that choice is suicidal.
The album begins on a soul-infused but wary note with Houdou On (Calm), rising and then falling down into a nebulous interlude that she comes out of with an insistent intensity. Ma Ikit (Not Found) alternates a growling Marilyn Manson-ish synth bassline with an anguished, sweepingly anthemic minor-key melody. Rhythms here tend to be straight-up and closer to rock than the Middle East, whether the slow, stalking, Peter Gabriel-ish Stranger, with its stern chromatic riffage and Mathlouthi’s perfect English lyric, or the bittersweet, surprisingly delicate title track, a cautionary tale familiar to anyone watching his or her back while the spycams roll and the troops roll out.
Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia), the anthem that started the ball rolling, sets vocals that offer comfort rather than fueling the fires of rage, against a backdrop of ominous motorik synth, echoey syndrums and a string arrangement that’s absolutely majestic – it’s no surprise that this was such a hit. By contrast, Dhalem (Tyrant) is crushingly sarcastic, a faux lullaby with a creepy music box interpolated into its pleading, longing melody. And the epic Ethnia Twila (The Road Is Long) slowly and wistfully unwinds through constant tempo changes into a final crescendo of crowd noise and children chanting resolutely.
The single most gripping track here might be Dfina (Burial), a bitter Tunisian-flavored art-rock anthem that shifts between distant disillusion and raw, unhinged rage. The most pop-oriented one is Hinama (When), with its ominous post-new wave production and watery guitars. The album ends with another multi-part epic, Yezzi (Enough), shifting from a pensive folk rock-tinged intro as it reaches for freedom once and for all, resolute and indomitable. The album is best enjoyed as a whole – it’s hard to turn away once Mathlouthi hits her stride. There aren’t many albums that pack this kind of impact: simply one of 2012’s best, and probably destined for iconic status as both historical artifact and artistic achievement.
Emel Mathlouthi and her band play the Alliance Francaise, 55 E 59th St. in Manhattan on May 22, 2013 at 8 PM. Tickets and information are available here.