Before the revolution that broke out in Tunisia in 2010, music like Emel’s would never have been allowed on the radio. But once the mass protests and civil resistance began, eventually becoming a movement that would topple the dictatorship of longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, and spread to numerous other countries in the Arab world, one of Emel’s songs, “Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free),” became the unofficial anthem of the Tunisian Revolution.
A video of Emel singing the song in the streets, surrounded by her fellow Tunisian freedom fighters, has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. “I remember I sang it one day in the street and then I traveled, and I was about to release my first album, and my sister called me and was like ‘This is crazy, your song is all over the place, on the radio, on TV, all day long.’”
At first, Emel says, she couldn’t believe it, because it had always been so impossible for that kind of song to be broadcast anywhere in Tunisia, and now all of a sudden the media were playing it non-stop. “People saw a lot of hope coming from it,” Emel says of why she believes “Kelmti Horra” was in such demand.
To this day, Emel’s first album, Kelmti Horra, has not had a proper release in Tunisia, even though she’s basically a superstar in the country. Things may have changed there, but many of the old power structures survived the revolution, she explains, and there is still quite a bit of conservatism ruling Tunisian society. “Kelmti Horra” gets played on the radio any time there’s a major event in the country (“I saw somebody writing on social media, ‘Oh my god, now each time the song is gonna play, I’m going to be like, what’s happened now?’” Emel says). But that and her acoustic take on a traditional Tunisian folklore song are about all the official airtime she gets.
Another one of the songs from her first album, for instance, called “Ya tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia),” became very popular with the younger generations in Tunisia, “But they wouldn’t play that one on the radio, still,” Emel says. “So it’s a very strange status because I feel like I’m recognized, I can say I’m famous, but still most people don’t know the songs that I really sing.”
But now, with her second album, Ensen, due out February 24 on Brooklyn’s Partisan Records, Emel, who was born and raised in Tunisia but moved to New York City in 2014 after living in Paris for seven years, is hoping to break through barriers more personal and more universal.
For her personally, Emel’s biggest motivation seems to be to break out of the “ethnic” box the music industry wants to keep her confined to. She may sing mostly in Tunisian, but she is not making “Tunisian music”—she wants to be seen first and foremost as an innovative electronic musician.
“On the first record, it was the first time I was meeting the electronic music world,” she says, adding that it was heavily influenced by the sounds of Massive Attack and Radiohead. “But on this one I didn’t want people to be interested in my music because it’s interesting enough for who I am or for where I’m coming from. I wanted people to get interested by what I do, not because I have a beautiful voice or there are nice melodies, I wanted people to get interested because there’s a nice production and that production is interesting for people in itself.”
That’s not to say that she is attempting to leave her Tunisian roots behind—far from it. In fact, it is the way she melds traditional Tunisian rhythms and instrumentation with electronic musical production techniques that makes the songs on Ensen truly unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Emel worked with a Tunisian percussionist to record endless variations of the traditional rhythms she grew up listening to, then ran all of those samples through effects like distortion, flanger, and reverb to give it an “electronic” feel. And all of the bass on the album was originally played on a gumbri, a traditional North African instrument that Emel calls “the ancestor of the bass”—essentially a giant, three-stringed lute. The bass lines played on gumbri were also run through effects, and then combined with the percussion elements to build a library of beats.
And that gets to what is more broadly groundbreaking about the album: Ensen represents a melding of the Arab and the Western world on many levels, and it’s coming out at a time when the West is growing ever-more suspicious and hostile toward the Arab world.
That’s one of the reasons why Emel still sings mostly in Tunisian Arabic: “It’s definitely a political statement,” she says. “Because the pressure is present, not only about music but you feel like the world is controlled by the English language.” She’s been in Lebanon, she says, and had to resort to speaking in English with the locals because the Tunisian and Lebanese Arabic dialects are so different. “I feel, eeehhh, this is so terrible,” Emel says.
To achieve her vision of marrying Arab and Western musical traditions, Emel first recorded the songs she had written for the album with her band, then experimented with adding electronic elements, almost as a proof of concept. That didn’t work out how she’d hoped, so she went looking for a producer who was comfortable working in both realms: “Somebody who would have experience with acoustic instruments and songwriting, and also somebody who’s connected with contemporary kind of music.”
While work on the album would eventually take place in seven different countries on three different continents, her search for collaborators led her to Valgeir Sigurðsson, an Icelandic producer best known for his work with Björk and Sigur Rós. “I know a lot about his work, his latest work with theater companies and these big ensembles with strings but with contemporary music,” Emel says. “And I was really interested in that because I really love working with textures and creating soundscapes.”
But even after working with Sigurðsson, Emel still wasn’t sure she was achieving the sound she was after. She kept workshopping the material, this time with Swedish producer Johannes Berglund, who has worked with The Knife and the Shout Out Louds, among others.
Her closest collaborator, however, was French-Tunisian musician and physicist Amine Metani, with whom Emel went through the mountain of recordings she had accumulated for Ensen and began piecing it all together with the library of electronic-Tunisian beats she had created. All the while, she and Metani continued to work closely with Berglund and Valgeir.
“It happened actually very naturally to work with many people,” Emel says. “I wanted to take my sound as far away as possible, so I wouldn’t be like ‘It’s too bad I didn’t dig enough here or I didn’t search enough there.’ I really wanted to go through any sound experience possible. And in the end, when I sit down, I feel like, yeah, I wouldn’t have achieved that if I didn’t have many different atmospheres, many different universes from different people. And now I totally believe that it’s completely crucial to work that way.”
There are many themes woven throughout Ensen, Emel says, but the overarching theme is perhaps best captured by the lead single, “Ensen Dhaif,” which translates to “Helpless Human.” Essentially, Emel seems to be reminding the world that, whether you’re Arab or a Westerner, you’re a helpless human first and foremost.
“I wanted to call the album ‘human,’ Ensen, because I wanted to connect everything to humanity, and because the work of an album is profoundly human, and with what’s happening nowadays we tend to forget what humanity is about,” she says.
“While producing this album I found myself sometimes completely ecstatic and sometimes in terrible pain. Sometimes it was really difficult. Sometimes I wouldn’t see the light. So it’s all these contrasts, the light and the darkness, the extreme fragility and the extreme strength. And for me it was just like exposing a part of your chest and having a wire coming out and connecting it with the people, to remind them that being human is being fragile. It’s okay to be fragile, because being fragile is also beauty. And also being human is doing art. Humanity is about empathy, and solidarity. I wanted to connect with that.”
All images by Julie Goldstone Koch