• Danny Wiser

TUNISIA: Kelmti Horra - Emel Mathlouthi

Updated: Jan 20

Dubbed the "voice of the Tunisian Revolution", Mathlouthi’s protest album is full of musical ambition

Imagine you are a young woman, who after years of brutal dictatorship in your homeland that you love, has decided to speak out and use your most powerful tool, your breath-taking singing that would capture the attention of anyone who hears it. However, as you open your mouth and try to release your anguish for all the world to hear, your voice is muzzled. You are silenced by these same oppressors who have been gagging the voice of your compatriots for decades. Determined to make your voice heard, you have to be inventive rather than conceding defeat to a regime that has assumed victory now that your songs are banned from the airwaves. You leave the country temporarily to find a way to battle from the afar. There is only one place to go, arguably the world’s spiritual home of revolution, Place De La Bastille.

“Mathlouthi spontaneously sung, amidst the backdrop of chanting and noise, a song so beautiful in both its melody and its lyrics it could only infuse hope into the hearts of those that hear it.”

This is the story of bravery; it is a tale of a young lady who, amongst many other heroes, was one of the key pieces in the eventual success of the Jasmine Revolution that led to the ousting of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in doing so made Tunisia the only pluralistic democracy in the entire Arab world that could be deemed a success to this day. Singing out to a crowd of thousands, a video of her performance of the title-track Kelmti Horra made its way back to her native country and resonated with the people, laying the seeds for a revolution more than three years before the actual uprising occurred. Whilst this is indeed a powerful performance to watch, it comes nowhere close to another viral video of her performing the same song that garnered attention not just from other Tunisians, but others facing the same plight in neighbouring countries Egypt and Libya, as well as in Middle-Eastern nations like Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, whose people followed suit and took to the streets.

Mathlouthi spontaneously sung, amidst the backdrop of chanting and noise, a song so beautiful in both its melody and its lyrics it could only infuse hope into the hearts of those that hear it. The song in that context is so potent that it brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it. What’s more, the imagery of the video is made even more powerful as she lights a candle. This to me represents the eternal flame and fire we have within that drives us to fight for change. Low and behold, hours later that very same day the Tunisian dictator resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia. It is worth reading a translation of the lyrics to this entire track if you can, however, for just a brief snapshot I will show you what the opening verse means. She sings:

We are free peoples who are not afraid,

We are secrets that never die

And for those who resist we are the voice,

In their chaos we shine,

We are free and our word is free,

But we do not forget those who cause the sobs and betray our faith ...

That fearlessness she sings about is something that she and many other Tunisians demonstrated in abundance, with thousands injured and hundreds killed. This ‘devil-may-care’ attitude is something that is displayed throughout the rest of her album. This is not only achieved through her lyrics but also in her production choices. Whilst I much prefer the second half of her album from Ethnia Twila onwards due to its more uplifting tone, the first half is very cinematic in its style. It can often appear jarring as it would perhaps be more appropriately be placed as a soundtrack to an action movie set in North Africa, but that is because Mathlouthi seems keen to not appease to an audience who cannot handle her dramatic approach to pop-rock. Her striking vocals may be overwhelming at first but stick with it and you will find light at the end of the tunnel.