Tag Archives: Tunisia

Artist Profiles: Emel Mathlouthi

Emel Mathlouthi

Emel Mathlouthi is a Tunisian singer-songwriter, composer, and guitarist. Gifted with an outstanding voice, she evokes Joan Baez, Sister Marie Keyruz and the Lebanese diva Fairuz. Her style is lyrical, with powerful rock, North African and trip hop influences.

Emel began her artistic career at the age of 8 performing at the small amphitheater in the Ibn Sina suburb of Tunis where she lived until the age of 25, when she moved to France to pursue her career as a singer.

Her song “Kelmti Horra”, (my word is free) was adopted by the Arab Spring revolutionaries and sung on the streets of Tunis. She has a charismatic presence and a voice that invokes revolution and freedom.


Kelmti Horra (World Village, 2012)
Ensen (2017)


Bargou 08 at the Top of the Transglobal World Music Chart in April 2017

The album Targ by Tunisian act Bargou 08 has reached the top of the Transglobal World Music Chart in April 2017. The band combines Tunisian highland traditional music with electronica and rock.

Band members include Lassaed Bougalmi on gasba, zokra (traditional reed instruments); Imed Rezgui on bendir (frame drum); Nidhal Yahyaoui on vocals, wtar (lute); Sofyan Ben Youssef on synthesizer; and Benjamin Chaval on drums.

To see the complete chart, visit: www.transglobalwmc.com


The Band Beyond Borders, A Remarkable Gathering of World Musicians

Amine & Hamza – The Band Beyond Borders – Fertile Paradoxes (ARC Music EUCD2704, 2017)

A popular comedian recently remarked that President Trump’s planned wall between the United States and Mexico is the sort of thing that will dissuade advanced alien life forms from contacting Earth. “Fertile Paradoxes” provides convincing counterpoint to this argument. Multiple cultures peacefully and productively interact throughout this wonderful release. Meaning no disrespect to the outstanding talents and contributions of any other artists on ARC or any other label, Amine and Hamza M’raihi and Band Beyond Borders are in a different class of world musicians.

“Fertile Paradoxes” essentially narrates a global musical ecosystem rather than demonstrating any one culture’s interaction with the rest of the world. One cannot listen to this release and pinpoint the artists’ place of origin (Tunisia, though they currently reside in Switzerland), so versed and versatile are they with the rhythms, tunings and instrumentations of diverse ethnic forms.

Perhaps the real paradox on the release is that there is no conflict where one would expect to find it. Instruments from cultures with no common borders or in historical conflict blend beautifully here. To quote the label’s press release, “kanun meets saxophone, cajón meets cello and musical borders are thrown to an adventurous wind, the south Indian kanjira frame drum and percussive Nigerian water jug ‘udu’ blend with accordion, and The Band Beyond Borders is joined by a full chamber orchestra on ‘Spleen’ and the sparky ‘Lullaby for Leo.’”

The players on this record represent a gifted and perceptive inner circle that was early to recognize the M’raihis’ vision and contribute their own talents and quirks to its development and, now, presentation to the rest of us.

“Fertile Paradoxes” will be equally at home in private music collections and public and independent radio station playlists, and the best musicians’ listening queues. This is an exciting treasure of a world music release, setting the bar higher for the entire field and providing a subtle, lovely, joyous example of creative interaction for us all.

Buy Fertile Paradoxes in the Americas and rest of the world

Buy Fertile Paradoxes in Europe


Breaking the Ground a Little More

The very names of the CDs I’m reviewing here (some, anyway) indicate that they’re looking to go to places that haven’t yet been fully explored musically. Ever-eager to hear new trails mapped out in the world of world music, I couldn’t be happier.


The Band Beyond Borders – Fertile Paradoxes


Tunisian Amine Mraihi is a wizard of the oud (Arabic lute). His brother Hamza has equally mastered the kanun (Arabic zither). Together they head up an impressive ensemble called The Band Beyond Borders and are looking to demonstrate as much on Fertile Paradoxes (ARC Music, 2017). You might think you have cause for concern about an opening track entitled “Spleen,” but have no fear. It’s as perfect a mood-setter as you could hope for, with Amine’s pensive riffing joined in due time by Hamza’s complimentary swirl, plus tabla, violin and classical Indian vocals. A meditative air soon jumps headlong into a stops-out jam featuring a chamber orchestra, layered percussion and solos galore, including saxophone, before settling back into the establishing calm.



The remainder of the pieces (shortest among them sporting a seven-and-a-half-minute running time) similarly blend serenity and thunder, tossing in a zesty accordion at one turn and a klezmer-like clarinet, flamenco flair or an abrupt jazz fusion passage the next. It would sound like a mess were it not for how precisely all the players are attuned to every nuanced change and how expertly they execute them. Whether it’s the evocative side or the supercharged moments that grab you most (or maybe the bridges between them), the sheer “wow” factor of this music makes it a must.


Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues – Different Voices


If the title doesn’t say it all, as in the case of Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues’ album Different Voices (Dawnserly Records, 2016), it might be necessary to add an explanation like “Blues Harmonica and Classical String Quartet,” which this one does on the front cover. Siegel’s blues harp is certainly the first thing heard, in the form of a mournful wail that ushers in violins, viola, cello and the saxophone of guest Ernie Watts on the cheeky drag of “Missing Persons Blues.” That one’s a head-bobber, and nothing that follows breaks the flow, be it the vocal contributions of Matthew Santos (who also does some handy beatboxing), blues vet Sam Lay or Marcy Levy (reinvigorating that old warhorse “Lay Down Sally,” which she co-wrote with Eric Clapton).

High marks also for the aching gospel tinges of Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong on “I’ll Fly Away” and subtle counterpunch of the tabla that adds a groove dimension throughout. The interwoven tones of harmonica and strings bring forward the roots of their respective traditions while keeping the blues undertow intact and allowing for experimentation such as the Central Asian-flavored “Galloping Horses,” a track which ends too soon. It all wraps up beautifully with “The Sky Will Fall,” a most heed-worthy lament; although I think music of this caliber can keep both sky and earth intact.


Amelia Romano – New Perspectives


A different sort of blue and a different sort of harp (think stringed) lead the way on New Perspectives (independent release, 2017) by Amelia Romano. This San Franciscan gal has been playing the harp from a very young age, presently favoring the cobalt blue electric model. And yes, some of the delicately refined tones affiliated with the harp are heard on this disc. But Romano has an ear and a vision well beyond the expected (her time teaching music in a South African township is one reason for that) and she takes the harp in Latin, blues, flamenco, jazz and singer/songwriter directions without missing a pluck.

While the personal touch of the relationship tale “Smile” opens the album on an inviting note that shows Romano to be a fine singer as well, it’s her versatility on the harp that really makes the whole thing a gem. South-of-the-border familiarities abound with “Bésame Mucho” and “Joropo Ortiz” reminding us that the harp is as much a Latin folkloric instrument as anything else, and in her own compositions Romano works the harp strings like heartstrings, whether laying back for an emotionally ambient passage or skillfully jamming inventive arrangements including the title track. Joined by varying, mainly acoustic combinations of bass, percussion, curator, guitar, viola, cello and reeds, Romano never comes across indulgent or showy. Instead she wields her chosen instrument with a combination of finesse and fire that’s unbeatable.


Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang – Build Music


Build Music (Luaka Bop, 2017) is the latest by Brooklyn-based Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang, and the music they’ve built is based on the ancient sound of Sierra Leone’s bubu horns, bamboo instruments used to accompany Ramadan processions. The bubu tones are recreated on keyboards and applied to modern Afropop arrangements topped with Nabay’s dryly infectious vocals. Lively, catchy and danceable though the results are, the programmed instrumentation that dominates gets a bit annoying after a while. It’s good, but it could have and should have been better. Recommended for those who prefer electronic over organic by a wide margin.


The Nile Project – Jinja


The musician’s collective it represents is appreciably larger, but on Jinja (Zambaleta, 2016), The Nile Project is comprised of 13 players and singers from seven nations (Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) that are among those spanned by the world’s longest river. The project’s first album was a live set from their 2013 debut concert, and this, their second (named for the Ugandan city in which the collective most recently gathered), is an assemblage of recordings from both proper and impromptu studios. In the end it matters little whether the music was laid down on or off the fly, because it’s seamless and brilliant.



The basics are easily described: melodies provided by the oud, krar and adungu (Arabic, Ethiopian and Ugandan lutes respectively); ample support from bass, saxophone and qawala (Egyptian flute); vocals traded between countries and genders; galloping percussion from across the spectrum and once in a while a specific element like the ikebme (lamellaphone) arising prominently. Musically, it’s tougher to find descriptive words.

Anyone familiar with Egyptian raks sharki or the increasingly well-known strains of Ethio-jazz will find common ground goodness here, as will those who can appreciate combined Egyptian and Sudanese love song sentiments, the embellishing of an Ethiopian Christian hymn with sounds straight out of the Muslim world, multilingual singing with shared passion as an unbreakable link, the beauty of acoustic instruments bursting forth unencumbered by overproduction or the way the whole disc comes across as how you’d imagine the perfect soundtrack accompanying a visit to the Nile’s 4000-plus miles would sound. And I’m barely marring the surface in relating the many pleasures to be heard.


Marcel Khalife – Andalusia of Love


If combining oud and kanun (see above) with piano isn’t entirely new, it’s still not the sort of combination you hear every day. And what some might find truly radical about Andalusia of Love (Nagam Records, 2016) is the fact that Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese Christian, sets to music the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), a Palestinian who championed the cause of peace between Palestine and Israel.



The elder Khalife (on oud and vocals) is joined by his sons Rami (piano) and Bachar (percussion) and Gilbert Yammine (kanun). The foursome work together with an energy that builds and separates much like the nuances of poetry: musical passages correspond to the rising and falling of sung stanzas supported by variations in tone, feel and speed to emphasize what I can only assume are changes in mood, intent and subject matter.

One need not understand the language to appreciate the unity-espousing feel of music that ranges from traditional to experimental. The savory concluding track “Achikain,” which tapers to a trickle after a flood of inspired group dynamics, is a fitting end to a wonderfully rendered cycle of music.

headline photo: The Band Beyond Borders


Tunisian Sensation Emel Mathlouthi to Perform in New York

Influential Tunisian vocalist Emel Mathlouthi is set to perform February 24th, 2017 at Joe’s Pub in New York City. Emel Mathlouthi is well-known for her role as a leading artist in the Arab Spring.

Born in Tunis, she was avoided by her country’s official radio stations but gained popularity through social media. She released her acclaimed first album, Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free) in 2012. Emel’s style is characterized by her commanding vocals along with a fusion of North African rhythms and modern electronic beats.

Her new album, Ensen, is scheduled for release February 24, 2017.

Joe’s Pub
425 Lafayette St, New York
Doors at 9:00 p.m., Show at 9:30 p.m.


Artist Profiles: Dhafer Youssef

Dhafer Youssef
Dhafer Youssef

Dhafer Youssef is a creative ud (Arabic lute) player from Tunisia. He’s also an excellent vocalist and prolific composer. Youssef mixes traditional Sufi music, world music, and jazz influences with Arabic lyricism.

Dhafer Youssef was born November 19th, 1967 in Tebulba. The son of a modest family from this Tunisian fishing village, he comes from a
long line of muezzins. Although he received vocal training as a young boy, Dhafer became interested in the ud. He played it at the youth center in Tebulba, where he also discovered the electric bass and various rhythms.

Seeking new possibilities, Dhafer Youssef moved to Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. He enrolled in the musical conservatory at Nahj Zarkoun. Disappointed with his experience there, he moved to Austria to complete his musical training.

Vienna’s multicultural scene opened the door to new options. Dhafer studied musicology, but soon realized he was more interested in jazz and Indian music. He participated in numerous jam sessions and met Austrian percussionist Gerhard Reiter. The two musicians formed a band called Zeryab.

Dhafer Youssef - Photo by Wolfgang Gonaus
Dhafer Youssef – Photo by Wolfgang Gonaus

In 1996, Dhafer Youssef released his first album “Musafir” (The Traveler, in Arabic). This album was the result of an encounter with Anton Burger, Achim Tang, Jatinder Thakur and Otto Leichner. He presented this project at Porgy & Bess, the renowned Viennese club.

At Porgy & Bess he met Nguyen Lê, the French guitarist of Vietnamese origin and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu who invites him to several performances throughout Europe.

In 1998, Dhafer released “Malak” (Enja Records). Three years later he recorded “Electric Sufi” (Enja Records), an album that featured Wolfgang Muthspiel on guitar, Markus Stockhausen on trumpet, Deepak Ram on bansuri, Dieter Ilg on bass, Mino Cinelu on percussion, Rodericke Packe on electronics, Will Calhoun on drums and Doug Wimbish on bass.

In 2003, Dhafer Youssef recorded “Digital Prophecy,” a world jazz symbiosis between the ud and electric instruments. This time, the lineup featured Scandinavian musicians: Nils Petter Molvaer on trumpet, Bugge Wesseltoft on piano, Eivind Aarset on guitar, Auden Erlien on electric bass, and Rune Arnesen on drums.
“Divine Shadows” came out in 2005, followed by “Abu Nawas Rhapsody” (2010) where he was accompanied by pianist Tigran Hamasyan, drummer Mark Giuliana and double bass player Chris Jennings.

In 2011, Dhafer invited Turkish clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici and kanun player Aytaç Dogan to a performance in Ludwigsburg (Germany). Inspired by this meeting, Dhafer Youssef released “Birds Requiem” (2013).

Dhafer returned to New York City in 2016, a city where he lived for a few years. There, he recorded “Diwan of Beauty and Odd” with New York jazz scene musicians: Aaron Parks on piano, Ben Williams on bass, Mark Guiliana on the drums and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet.


Musafir (1996)
Malak (Enja, 1999)
Electric Sufi (Enja, 2001)
Digital Prophecy (Justin Time, 2003)
Exile, with Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble (Enja, 2003)
Odem, with Wolfgang Puschnig and Jatinder Thakur) (EmArcy, 2005)
Divine Shadows (Jazzland, 2006)
Homescape, with Nguyên Lê and Paolo Fresu (ACT, 2006)
Glow, with Wolfgang Muthspiel (Material, 2007)
Jo & Co, with Anna Maria Jopek (Universal Music Poland, 2008)
Latitudini – Omaggio Alla World Music, with Paolo Fresu and Eivind Aarset (Casa Del Jazz, 2008)
Abu Nawas Rhapsody (EmArcy, 2010)
Birds Requiem (Okeh, 2013)
Diwan of Beauty and Odd (Okeh, 2016)

website: dhaferyoussef.com


World Music Central’s Guide to Tunis

Contributed by Nizar Chaari with translation made available by Sarah Wolfe and additional information provided by Angel Romero.

Tunis is the capital of Tunisia, a small country located in coastal North Africa. The country’s history is ancient. A Phoenician colony grew into Carthage, one of the most powerful Mediterranean empires. Its strategic location turned it into a melting pot of cultures. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Berbers (Amazigh), and French colonists have left their mark.

Tunis has a magnificent medina (old city in Arabic) with its famous souks (open air markets). They are divided by specialties, which include the goldsmiths, clothes sellers, the jewelers, tourist memorabilia, etc. Bargaining is a must.

Record stores

There are some good music shops outside the souks. The prices range between 5-10 dinars.


Radio Sfax MW 720 / FM 105.2 has a world music show, Mousika bidoun hodoud, hosted by Nizar Chaari on Monday 3-5pm (GMT). Contact information: 7 rue Immam Sahnoun, pic ville 3000 Sfax. Tunisia. Phone: 0021698278661.

Radio Tunis has online channels.


In Tunisia, there are many festivals (more than 400). Of special interest are the Arab Andalusian (Maluf) Music Festival of Testour and the Sahara Festival in Douz, You will find a listing of the most important at the following site:

For the international festival of Sfax, which features numerous Arabic pop and classical singers, here is the site address:


Tunisian Artists

To read the profiles and discographies of Tunisian artists, click here.

There is additional information at these sites:

Music Schools

Rachidia [also spelled Rachidya] Tunisian Music Institute (Institut La Rachidia De Musique Tunisienne) was created in 1934 by Mustapha Sfar. One of the main goals of the school was to revive Arab Andalusian music, specifically the Maluf [also spelled malouf]repertory. Adress: 5 Rue Edday, Tunis. Phone: 00216 7 260 844.

Musical instruments

Hichem Bouallegue is a luthier who specializes in ‘uds [also known as ouds], the Arabic lute. His shop is located at 68, avenue de la liberté, Tunis. Bouallegue makes handmade ‘uds. It usually takes this craftsman about a month and a half to make one ‘ud. He usually sells them for 300 Tunisian dinars.

There are only about 5 craftsmen left who make stringed instruments in all Tunisia. On the other hand, there are many “industrial” ‘ud factories.

Cultural Centers

There are a few cultural centers that have a performance space and that organize musical events. Not all of them are in the capital, but the country is small and most venues are not far.

B.P. 33, Colline Byrsa, 2016 Carthage
Phone: 71 73 38 66 – Fax: 71 73 35 55

Centre Culturel De La Ville De Tunis
(Cultural Center for the city of Tunis)
Av. Mohamed V, 1001 Tunis République
Phone: 71 83 48 41 – Fax: 71 83 48 41

Centre Culturel Et Sportif Des Jeunes (Culture & Sports Center for Youth)
Av. O. Ibn Affen, 2091 Menzah 6
Phone: 71 23 37 34 – Fax: 71 78 87 33

Centre Culturel International (International Culture Center)
Av. Nations Unies, 8050 Hammamet
Phone: 72 28 04 10 – Fax: 72 28 07 22

Centre Culturel Sousse (Sousse Cultural Center)
Av. Med Maârouf, B.P. 56, 4000 Sousse
Phone: 73 22 54 50 – Fax: 73 22 54 50

Ennejma Ezzahra
8, r. 2 Mars, 2026 Sidi Bou Saïd
Phone: 71 74 01 02 / 71 74 60 51 – Fax: 71 74 64 90

Espace Sophonisbe
Carthage Hannibal, 2016 Carthage
Phone: 71 27 56 66 – Fax: 71 73 45 88

Maisons De Jeunes Et De La Culture (House of Youth and Culture)

Rte Tunis, Km 2, 3041 Merkez Chihya. Phone: 74 28 75 47
Rte Téniour, 3041 Merkez Chihya.
Phone: 74 25 56 43

Rte Aéroport, 3060 Mahres. Phone: 74 29 11 01
Km 6, 3011 Sakiet Eddaier.
Phone: 74 29 33 94

Av. A. Tlili, 3200 Tataouine. Phone: 75 86 12 59
3021 Sakiet Ezzit.
Phone: 74 25 05 00

Maisons De La Culture (Houses of Culture)

Maison De La Culture Ibn Khaldoun (Ibn Khaldoun House of Culture)
16, r. Ibn Khaldoun, 1001 Tunis.
Phone: 71 24 19 01 – Fax: 71 24 19 01

Maison De La Culture Ibn Rachiq (Ibn Rachiq House of Culture)
20, av. Paris, 1001 Tunis.
Phone: 71 25 21 54

Houses of Culture in other locations:

R. Imam Sahnoun, 7050 Mzel Bourguiba. Phone: 72 46 03 33
R. Nakhil, 1141 Bir M’Chergua.
Phone: 72 67 94 10

8114 Beni M’tir. Phone: 78 64 90 23
Compl. Culturel, 3200 Tataouine.
Phone: 75 86 02 50

C. Administrative, 3060 Mahres. Phone: 74 29 02 12

29, pl. A. Hachich, 3000 Sfax. Phone: 74 29 74 35

R. Gouvernorat, 7100 Kef. Phone: 78 20 09 74


Amphitheatre Romain De Carthage (Roman Amphitheatre of Carthage)
Av. 7 Novembre, 2016 Carthage.
Phone: 71 73 13 32

El Teatro (The Theatre)
Bd O. Haffouz, Compl. Mechtel, 1005 Omrane.
Phone: 71 89 43 13 – Fax: 71 79 17 95

Espace Culturel El Hamra (El Hamra Cultural Space)
28, r. Al Jazira, 1000 Tunis R.P.
Phone: 71 32 07 34 – Fax: 71 32 07 34

Theatre Municipal De Tunis (Municipal Theatre of Tunis)
2, r. Grèce, 1001 Tunis République.
Phone: 71 25 94 99 – Fax: 71 25 96 48

Theatre De L’etoile Du Nord (Theatre of the North Star)
41, av. F. Hached, 1000 Tunis R.P.
Phone: 71 25 62 42 / 71 25 43 89 – Fax: 71 25 52 34

Theatre Municipal De Sfax (Municipal Theatre of Sfax)
Av. H. Chaker, 3000 Sfax.
Phone: 74 22 83 60 – Fax: 74 29 73 44

Theatre Municipal De Sousse (Municipal Theatre of Sousse)
Av. H. Bourguiba, 4000 Sousse.
Phone: 73 22 82 11 – Fax: 73 22 82 11

Event & Concert Organizations

Scooporganisation specializes in Tunisian and world music artists. Mourad Mathri is the director.

Club De Musique Arabe (Arab Music Club)
28, av. Bab Jédid, 1008 Tunis Bab Menara.
Phone: 71 34 47 26

Espace Culturel (Cultural Space)
63, av. H. Bourguiba, 1000 Tunis R.P.
Phone: 71 33 97 57 – Fax: 71 33 01 13

Felix Animation 4, r. Chypre, C. Ettaâmir, 2080 Ariana. Phone: 71 71 20 14 / 98 22 19 40

Founoun On Line 8, r. Damas, 1002 Tunis Belvédère. Phone: 71 84 94 93 – Fax: 71 84 89 40

Kreativa Big Show, 11, r. Beyrouth, 1002 Tunis Belvédère. Phone: 71 84 28 43 / 71 84 86 89 – Fax: 71 84 86 89

La Palmeraie, 16, r. Imam Malek, 1004 Menzah. Phone: 71 23 80 10 – Fax: 71 23 80 10

Ministry of Culture

Ministere de la Culture
Address : 8, rue du 2 mars 1934,
La Kasbah – 1006 Tunis.
Phone: (216 71) 562 661, (216 71) 563 006.


The Musical Pulse of Tunisia

By Thorne Anderson

(From the Saudi Aramco World magazine July/August 2001 issue. Reproduced by courtesy of Aramco World Magazine)


Even without an appreciation of the region’s place in history, it’s a beautiful word, an evocative word.  In Tunisia, mere mention of the name stirs potent nostalgia for a time, now five centuries lost, when the artistic creativity of Al-Andalus – Muslim Spirit – nourished tastes so refined that the mere memories of them drive creative arts today and shape present-day Tunisia’s national identity.  And nothing conjures up this nostalgia more powerfully and mysteriously than the musical offspring of Al-Andalus, the Tunisian maluf.

Bouncing in the back seat of a taxi driving fast from the airport into the heart of Tunis, historical memories of Al-Andalus seem far from the chaotic currents of the present.  It’s a warm late-December day, but the car’s faulty heater continues to blast from the dashboard, making open windows a necessity.  A medallion spins from the rear-view mirror in the swirling streams of competing gusts.  The car’s stereo speaker buzz under the stress of Europop dance music turned all the way up.

But the taxi driver’s face brightens when I mention maluf.  “Of course I listen to the maluf,” he chimes as he slides in a cassette tape of the Rashidiyya Orchestra, the premier performers and preservers of the art.  “We are Tunisians.  We must love the maluf.  There are the stories of our people, stories of love, everything is there.  Maluf is sweet music,” he says, and we roll up the windows and endure the heat in order to hear better.  “We Tunisian may be tough on the outside,” he says, “But you scratch our skin and the maluf is there.”

Maluf (pronounced mah-LOOF) survives today in public and private performances and at weddings and circumcision ceremonies because of a determined effort of preservation on the part of the Tunisian government, private patrons and dedicated musicians young and old.  Although but a small part of a much larger, evolving contemporary musical-arts scene – indeed, it can be difficult to find maluf recordings except in specialized music shops – the history of the maluf is so enmeshed with that of Tunisia that maluf has become a sort of emblem of national identity, and its influence is ever-present and fiercely guarded.

Amjed Kilifi, a carpet dealer in Tunis, is all business and he doesn’t appear to be the kink of guy to take “high culture” too seriously, He says he rarely listens to maluf, but it’s clear he holds the music in the highest esteem nonetheless.  “Those who like the maluf tend to be more intellectual,” he says.  “Most people don’t prefer maluf these days, but it was born with us and we’ll never let it go.”

Young people really do love maluf,” says Latifa Fkiri, a journalist and actor, “but they don’t listen to it often.  Maluf really takes patience, but those with patience will discover that the maluf is in our blood, our pulse, our breath.”

We must sing the maluf,” insists Rim Fehri, a voice student at the Institut Superieur, Tunis’s leading music school.  “We must love the maluf; we are the maluf.”

Maluf, which means “familiar” or “customary,” bears the auditory traces of music brought to North Africa by Muslims fleeing the Christian reconquista of Spain and Portugal between the 12th and 15th centuries.  In Morocco, this genre is known as Andalusi or ala music; in Algeria it is gharnata.

In Libya, as in Tunisia, it is maluf, with the Libyan maluf distinguished mostly by dialect differences in the lyrics.  More subtly, these Maghrebian, or North African, genres also differ in the tuning of melodic modes and the articulation of rhythmic patterns.  Those differences, at times scarcely perceptible to an outsider, are the musical equivalents of dialects.

The maluf idiom comprises all forms of Tunisian classical singing, which themselves are based on the classical Arabic poetry form known as the qasidah, or ode.  The maluf forms include muwashshah, a “post-classical” form not rigidly governed by the qasidah; zajal, a newer poetic genre using special dialectical forms; and shgul, a traditional singing which is “elaborate,” as the Arabic name implies. But the most important form, the structural heart of maluf, is the nuba.

A nuba might be described as a two-movement “musical suite” in a single mode or maqam, an Arab system of pitch organization by quarter-tones that allows for the construction of melodies and improvisation within a scale.  Each nuba lasts about an hour, and contains varied instrumental and a dozen or so vocal pieces in a traditional sequence.  The rhythmic patterns (iqaat) of each nuba are
complex, but they are similar from one nuba to the next, and they generally progress from slower to faster rhythms within each movement.  The first movement of a nuba is dominated by binary, or bac-2, rhythms while the second is dominated by bace-3 rhythms.

Legend holds that there was once a different nuba for every day, every major event and every holiday of the year, hundreds of nubat in all.  About two-thirds of the way through a nuba, one improvisational section would be played in the maqam of the nuba of the following evening.  “Its beautiful to think about,” says Jamel Abid, and instructor at the Institut Superieur.  “So fine were the listeners’ ears that they needed tuning for the upcoming evening.”

Only 13 nubat remain in the traditional repertory, each in a different maqam.  But if they are few in number, they are epic in scope, addressing the natural and the divine, love and loss, joy and regret, simultaneously at home and in exile.  The breadth of experience covered by the music is immense.

Maluf touches the center of the identity of all Tunisians; it is the vessel of the maqamat, the modes that define us as a people,” says Becher Soussi, director of the annual International Festival of Arab Music in Testour, Tunisia.  “If a Tunisian really listens to a fine performance of the maluf then he or she will feel something like ecstasy – the experience of tarab,” he says.  “Tarab is the relationship between the performers and the audience.  To understand it you must experience it.  It’s not concrete.  It’s connected with the emotions.  It’s the binding force that connects people with music.”

The birth of the maluf may be traced back to Ziryab, a court musician whose expulsion from Baghdad in 830 sent him westward on a journey that became notable for discovery and artistic innovation.  Across the Maghreb he stopped in Kairouan, in the heart of the region then called Ifriqiyya, now Tunisia.  Kairouan, the first major Islamic city in Africa, had been founded 150 years earlier by the Arab leader ‘Uqba bin Nafi’ al-Fihi, some 50 years before the Arab conquest of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula.  At the time of Ziryab’s visit, Kairouan was the capital of the powerful Aghlabite dynasty and the heart of Maghrebian culture.

Ziryab collected the melodies and rhythms of the Maghreb as he traveled on to Cordoba.  He arrived at the beginning of a brilliant cultural flowering in Al-Andalus that drew nourishment from all its distant roots and the diversity of its polyglot inhabitants.  In this climate, Ziryab, newly re-established as a court musician, combined his Middle Eastern musical education with the influences of the Maghreb to create a distinctively Andalusian type of music.  Ziryab’s rhythms, modes and melodies marked out the boundaries of new genre which, like most Arab music, was highly improvisational in structure and spiritual in temperament.  “Improvisation is the offspring of your felling and a reflection of your soul,” says Rashidiyya Orchestra ‘ud player Mohammed Nabid Saied.  “If your soul is good and clean, so will be your music.”

In the 13th century, Tunis saw its first wave of 8,000 refugees from the Christian reconquista.  This influx peaked at the end of the 15th century, when Granada fell to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.  Andalusian music took root in the urban centers of the Maghreb, the, through centuries of transmission, repetition, memorization and adaptation, acquired its unique melodic, rhythmic, and dialectic character wherever it grew.  “Maluf became a distinctly Tunisian pocket of culture,” says Lassad Gria, directory of the Tunisian National Center of Music and Popular Arts.  “Tunisians are, of course, open to the world’s influences, but an Egyptian person, for example, can’t really sing maluf.”

Tunisian (and Libyan) maluf was further distinguished from the music of the western Maghreb by the sway of the Ottoman Empire, which took Tunisia as a colony in 1574, ushering in new influences from its vibrant musical centers: Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, and, of course, Istanbul.

In the mid-18th century Tunisia’s Ottoman governor, Muhammad al-Rashid, a virtuoso musician, fixed the structure of the nuba, adding Turkish-inspired instrumental pieces of his own compositions.  In the absence of a written notation system, his melodies passed from instrument to ear to instrument, through generations, so that the
composition of most instrumental parts of the nubat as they exist today may be attributed to him.  Al-Rashid ultimately abdicated his political post to devote himself entirely to music, and today the Rashidiyya Institute the center of maluf preservation, bears his name.

When the Ottoman Empire crumbled, France established a “protectorate” in Tunisia based on her claim at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, and the maluf, then in decline, underwent a dramatic transformation.  In an effort to save it from extinction, the French-naturalized Baron Rudolfe d’Erlanger, an amateur musician
of Bavarian birth who had settled near Tunis, commissioned Ali al-Darwish of Aleppo to produce the first collection of this ancient repertory in written musical notation, a 20-year project.  Together, d’Erlanger and Darwish undertook one of the first academic studies of Arab music theory and assembled Tunisia’s presentation at the ground-breaking 1932 International Congress of Arabic Music,
hosted in Cairo by King Faud I.  Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, one of the many renowned participants, supervised the Gramophone company in recording 360 performances by the musician delegations; most of the recordings have survived in the National Sound Archives of Paris, and some are available to the public on compact disk.

D’Erlanger died a few months after the Cairo congress, but the momentum of the event helped inspire the founding of the Rashidiyya Institute in 1934 for the reservation of the maluf through radio performance, musical training programs and public concerts.

The institute immediately introduced radical alterations with the goal of promoting popularity and raising prestige: Lyrics considered “profane” were revised, and two spectacular rehearsal and performance spaces were constructed in the heart of the walled madina, or old city, of Tunis.

The music itself was also changed.  Earlier, the maluf had been performed in small folk ensembles with simple instrumentation: usually an ‘ud ‘arbi (four-stringed lute) and a rabab (two-stringed fiddle) accompanied by a bandir (frame drum), tar (tambourine), darbukka (goblet-shaped drum) and naqqarat (small kettle drums.
Lyrics were sung by soloists or in small groups.  Through the efforts of the Rashidiyya, however, hybrids of Western symphony orchestras and Egyptian ensembles arose that performed maluf in a hybrid of traditional and modern musical styles using mixed traditional and modern musical styles using mixed traditional and modern instrumentation.

Led by the cosmopolitan Tunisian violinist Muhammad Triki, the Rashidiyya Orchestra arranged the nuba for a large, seated chorus and orchestra including the ‘ud sharqi (six-string lute), nay (bamboo flute), and qanun (zither).  Most of the rest of the orchestra comprised Western string sections: violin, cello and contrabass.  (Western stringed instruments are adaptable to the Arab maqamat
because they are fretless and can thus easily render the characteristic fractional tones, though the Rashidiyya sometimes included even fixed-pitch instruments like the piano or mandolin.)

Equally – perhaps even more – radical was the orchestra’s adherence to written musical notation and the comprehensive Arab music theory introduced by the Rashidiyya Institute under the leadership of Salah el-Mahdi, Triki’s successor. All 13 of the surviving nubat were painstakingly collected and distilled from the various, often quite divergent, interpretations of the Tunisian masters of
the time.  The orchestra chose to use western musical notation, modified to record the Arab maqamat.  The difficulty of printing right-to-left Arabic lyrics on left-to-right musical staffs was overcome by printing lyrics left-to-right, word by word or syllable by syllable.

The use of notation brought fundamental changes in the formerly improvisational character of maluf.  Whereas the unnotated maluf of the past had involved improvisation throughout a performance in reaction to audience responses, the Rashidiyya’s notated maluf left only one instrumental section of each nuba open to extensive improvisation.  But times were changing in other ways, too: The
popularization of the phonograph record miliated against the spontaneity of improvisation and favored an agree-upon performance standard – a demand addressed in part by adherence to musical notation.

The Rashidiyya’s transformation of the maluf, though frowned at by some, did succeed in elevating the maluf to the prestigious level of “art music” and repopularizing the genre by broadcasting it beyond the urban centers.  Moreover, the Rashidiyya simultaneously became the most important musical training center in the country, due in large part to el-Mahdi’s Arab music theory and curriculum.

The Rashidiyya is the mother of all musical arts in Tunisia,” says Youssef
Malouche, administrative director and professor of the qanun at the still-lively Rashidiyya Institute.  “Even if a musician hasn’t studied here, his teacher has studied here.”

It’s easy to get lost looking for the Rashidiyya Institute, tucked away deep in the Tunis medina.  Narrow alleyways not much wider than a donkey-cart wind in the organic, millennium-old patterns.  There are black-and-white checkered arches, passageways covered by vaulted ceilings and a jumble of densely crowded suqs, interrupted from time to time by the calm of mosque entrances.

The metal-studded blue door of the Rashidiyya is set inconspicuously in the cracked plaster wall of a quiet street just around the corner from nothing in particular.  Inside, the building opens to a large sky-lit performance, hall covered floor to ceiling in Andalusian tile.  Five days a week, the walls ring with the sounds of the Rashidiyya chorus rehearsing.  In a nod to tradition, the vocal chorus, unlike the instrumentalists, rehearses without written music, following the lead of a maluf master, Tahar Gharsa, on ‘ud.  Apprentice musicians sit on a rehearsals for as long as two years before they are allowed to join the chorus.

Vocalist Chakri Hannachi, known throughout the Arab world for his recordings Ba Younek (1993) and La La Wallah (1994), studied for 10 years at the Rashidiyya and sang in the chorus.  Though he is more likely to be heard singing international Arab classical music, he locates the source of his art close to home.  “The maluf is the source for all Tunisian artists,” he says.  “And the Rashidiyya provided the basis of my art.”

The impact of the Rashidiyya has gone far beyond simple preservation of the maluf. In the period surrounding Tunisian independence in 1957, the nation was eagerly searching for symbols of common identity.  Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s recently deceased first president, recognized the unifying potential of the maluf and was quick to support and expand the work of the Rashidiyya.

Salah el-Mahdi, by then director of the Rashidiyya Orchestra, was selected to compose the Tunisian national anthem.  El-Mahdi’s music theory likewise became the cornerstone of the curriculum of the newly formed national conservatory as well as its successor, the Institut Superieur, which is now part of the national university.  For 18 years el-Mahdi also lead a department of music and popular
arts in the fledgling Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which featured programs to spread the teaching of the maluf through an extensive network of youth centers, cultural centers, and popular-arts schools.  And professional musicians were – and still are – required to obtain an “qualifying card,” which in turn requires a test of the musicians’ knowledge of maluf.

The card does not, however, require that musicians feature or incorporate maluf into their own work.  On the contrary, most musicians these days are drawn to popular forms from elsewhere in the Arab world – especially Egypt.  And when the maluf surfaces, it may differ greatly from the “official” maluf of the Rashidiyya.

On a cool evening during Ramadan, most of the Tunis madina is transformed as the festival-like daytime crush of people slows to an erratic trickle of residents making solitary darts from one door to the next.  But from the Hatters’ Market, come the sounds of a party, and there are waiters in round, flat red hats and stripped, collarless shirts pick their way through a dense crowd of people at round tables who are smoking fruit tobacco from water pipes and drinking tea laced with almonds or pine nuts.  At the far end, hemmed in by a crowd of dancing men, the group Al Jazira floats the sound of an urgent violin on a turbulent current of tar, darbukka and bandir pulsing in double-time.  The dancers close their eyes, open their arms, and enter the current.  “I believe this is still the real maluf,” says Habib Bouallegue, the violin player of the group, all of whom have studied at the Rashidiyya.  “We play right out of the 13 nubat,” he says.  “We bring people the classical Tunisian songs in a way that brings them to their feet.”

Salah el-Mahdi might frown on identifying such performances with the maluf.  Still, though he’s now retired from all official positions, he remains focused on his lifelong mission to expand and popularize the maluf.  In addition to maintaining a busy private teaching schedule with more than 20 students in his own conservatory, el-Mahdi stays in close contact with governmental as well as art and intellectual circles, and his message is undiluted.  “We’re at a low point in maluf preservation now,” el-Mahdi insists as he shuffles through stacks of paper, music, and appointment books on the desk in his studio office,
searching for a lost note.  The walls are crammed with awards, honors, and an international collection of photographs showing him with presidents, prime ministers and kings.  “If we care for the survival of the maluf, then we must create musical troupes in our high schools.”  To this end, el-Mahdi has proposed to the Ministry of Education that four hours a week be set aside each Friday for compulsory maluf education in the schools.  “We must not underestimate the importance of this,” he says, pausing in his paper shuffle to make eye contact.  “If maluf survives, then we Tunisians will remain Tunisians.”

As a legacy, el-Mahdi has composed four modern nubat, each a monumental undertaking, to add to the traditional repertory of 13.  Each year in July he attends the International Festival of Arab Music in Testour, where he urges composers to continue to add to the repertory – but to date, only two others have tackled the tasks of composing a complete nuba.  “Many have tried and failed,” he
says, “but it is essential to the life of the tradition that we keep trying.”

These days most of Tunisia’s classical musicians use the maluf as a stepping stone to the exploration of the wider world of Arab or western music, but it remains a solid, universal first step.  The cultural centers and schools of popular arts all also teach other forms of Arab classical music now, but the curricula still begin with a foundation in the maluf, beginning with singing the maqamat, progressing to playing the iqaat on the tar, and finally learning excerpts from the maluf on stringed instruments.  Amateur classical-music clubs, like the Farabi Club and the all-woman Taqasim Orchestra, abound, and they tour to festivals around the world, playing maluf as a small part of a much wider Arab

I like maluf.  I teach maluf.  I understand maluf.  When I play with the
Rashidiyya I have a feeling of national pride – but my interest are much broader
,” says Khadija El Afrit, a star qanun student at the Institut Superieur and a member of the Taqasim Ensemble and the Rashidiyya Orchestra.  “There are not so many new things for me to discover there.  The maluf must grow.  It needs new compositions and interpretations.  Part of the problem is the small audience for maluf.”

El Afrit is a serious musician.  When not distracted by teaching or rehearsing she devotes up to eight hours of the day to her instrument.  Like many of her peers at the Institut, El Afrit looks to the Sorbonne as her next educational step. She says she is intrigued by what’s new in maluf, such as the experimental compositions of Nassar Samoud, who composes in the Tunisian maqamat but include
pop iqaat along with the traditional, orthodox ones.

On the street, young people echo the desire for innovation.  “The problems with the maluf is that it hasn’t kept up with modern life,” says Muhammad Laribi, a student from Tozeur in southern Tunisia.  “Modern life is complicated.  All life’s rhythms are changing – our environments, our clothes, our hairstyles.  I like the rhythms of the maluf.  It’s calm.  But young people are looking for musical rhythms that keep up with the beat of modern times.”

Rabiaa Zammouri, a graduate of the Institut Superieur, in a young composer for television, radio, and stage who works to bring traditional music into modern times.  Seated at a large wooden desk in his home studio, Zammouri, surrounded by a museum-like collection of string and percussion instruments, moves back and forth between the key-boards of his Intel 75 PC and his Korg X5 synthesizer. The two are connected in a haphazard-looking crisscross of wires through an Ensoniq ASR 10 Sampler, some microphone, and a large Roland amplifier at his feet.  “And this still isn’t enough to make the music in my mind,” he says.

Zammouri has the slow-burning fire of the rebel in his eyes as he dims the lights and plays one of his compositions.  It’s the soundtrack for a promotional television piece for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), one of Zammouri’s clients.  He turns up the volume,  Out of the silence rises the beat of a darbukka in the btaihi iqa.  It’s joined a few seconds later by a solo violin in the sika maqam.  A few moments later the pair is confronted with a percussive piano in counterpoint to both the rhythm and the mode.  The effect is
seamless, innovative, and decidedly modern – distinctly Tunisian, traditional, and, at the same time, cosmopolitan.

Those who understand the maluf know that it is very rich,” Zammouri says.  “But the classical maluf is related to a special period in history when people could only play the maluf; now we must open up to other forms of music.  We cannot confine our inspiration to the past.”  The benefits, he says, go both ways. “I extract from the maluf that which blends with western music.  In this way I think I can bring innovation to the West through my music.”

Another of Zammouri’s maluf-inspired compositions was commissioned by Sihem Belkhoja, Tunis’s premier modern-dance choreographer.  Belkhoja used the composition piece called “Iqa,” which she says was intended to “touch the underlying rhythms of our Arab culture, and maluf is a faithful language of translation for our Arab culture.”

Dance is not traditionally associated with maluf, so any choreography represents a startling innovation in the genre.  “Our Muslim arts are rooted in music, architecture and poetry,” Belkhoja says.  “The concept of dance doesn’t fit into old Arab traditions.  For a strong foundation for dance, as a modern art, we must turn to music.”

Belkhoja’s dancers are carefully costumed and lit.  They jump, turn, roll, crawl and stomp their way around the stage in the international freeform style of modern dance.  It’s a long way from the Rashidiyya.  “I use maluf because a contemporary art must reach into tradition for a faithful approach to modern society,” Belkhoja says.  Artistic growth begins at the roots, but the ultimate survival of the art depends on the growth.  “Music and dance,” she says, “these
are living arts.  Innovation is preservation.”

That is the lifelong story of the maluf, evolving through centuries of migration and cultural influences into a nation’s binding musical vocabulary.  In the early years of independence, when the freshly notated nubat were at last gathered for publication, Salah el-Mahdi wrote that, in the maluf, “we see to what extent Tunisia has been a crossroads of cultures and of schools, retaining and incorporating into her venerable heritage that which suits the disposition of her people, and enriching that heritage by what her sons produce.  Thus here is
a beneficial give and take, and this is the way of God with creation