The stage is adorned with a superb coat of light. Surely the fear of appearing too bland in front of the Tunisian singer yet dressed in black. Minutes and titles pass too quickly, modern and percussive, in Arabic and English, alone or accompanied. To her musicians are added, for the time of a piece or for a choral finale, Léonie Pernet, Laura Cahen and Awa Ly with whom she is preparing her next album. Like this edition of Les Suds, the voices of women shake the tops of agitated trees. At the turn of an exchange, a few chilling words are dedicated to the agony of the living world, for how long. With her powerful voice, Emel sings her fragile notes. Holm’s last breath carries a crystalline melody which comes to silence on our eardrums. An eloquent silence grips the crowd. Not the slightest hubbub within the amphitheater. The loudest exploits are sometimes those that are shrouded in silence. It’s the blowing of the wind – beautiful irony – that brings us back to the shore.
Back on a stage that almost saw her hatch several years ago, Emel Mathlouthi and her repertoire, including her latest album The Tunis Diaries embarked the Souths with all the relevance that we know him. From his words, as accurate as his notes, from his choices to share the bill with a talented avant-garde, Emel Mathlouthi undeniably offered one of the strongest moments of this 27th edition. Few festival artists know how, during a concert, to summon the crowd and appropriate the stage. The proof: when it leaves this one, the sun, this star which had burned all day, was hiding – out of respect or shame – in favor of another, brighter star. Maintenance.
Emel Mathlouthi and Léonie Pernet © Stéphane Barbier
You returned to the stage of the ancient theater of Arles twelve years after your last visit to this Festival in 2010. What was your state of mind before this concert?
Emel Mathlouthi: I was way too nervous. It was a big comeback on a big set. I went there with a lot of fragility. Knowing that I was expected didn’t help.
On some tracks you shared this scene with your guests: Awa Ly, Léonie Pernet and Laura Cahen. What motivated this collaboration with the three women?
Emel Mathlouthi: My management has been more feminist in thought and action for a while now. I am in the process of preparing an album entirely produced and directed by women and we wanted to make this resonate in these few rare concerts given before the new album. I have invited artists to whom I have been quite close this year and artists whose generosity and heart touch me. I suggested a few songs from my repertoire to each of the girls, choosing what suited them best. We quickly came to an agreement. I am very moved to have seen them do such a fine job of interpretation.
We hear several languages in a concert by Emel Mathlouthi. You switch from Arabic to English, two very different languages. Are there in one or the other little pleasures, freedoms or nuances that you appreciate, like so many challenges?
Emel Mathlouthi: Absolutely. Arabic is quite extraordinary and complex to sound especially in my style of music and instrumentation. English, on the other hand, is somewhat my mother tongue of music and my singing there is more fluid and more languorous. I’m happy to have found a balance there and to feel in my comfort zone. I express my personality in each and like to go back and forth between the two. English and Arabic offer me different styles of interpretation and different flows.
When you perform, you pay particular attention to your costumes and hairstyles. What do you like about this visual proposal that you add to the music?
Emel Mathlouthi: I take great pleasure in choosing my costumes and my hairstyles. It’s like playing dolls with myself. On stage, I can dare everything, experience everything. I love to create according to my mood according to the scene or the festival. I try to create an aesthetic for myself for each album as well. When I am prepared, styled and dressed I feel armed. I conceive of my dressing as armor ready to face the fires of the stage, a bit like butō dancers.
If the artist, who recently toured Japan, cites the art of butō, it is not by chance. This relatively modern dance evacuates the suffering of recent traumas such as those of the nuclear bombs or Fukushima. The art of healing wounds. The art of supporting hopes. A few months after Emel Mathlouthi came to Arles in 2010, Tunisia is rising up against the authority of President Ben-Ali. The voice of Emel and his song “Kelmti Horra” (my word is free) then accompanies this revolution. Whether it’s feminist or environmental struggles or denouncing police violence, the artist works with her talent for a freer world.
The music of these souths of which the festival speaks carries within them fights, struggles and causes that are more alive than ever. Music can defend a language or a territory. It can fight oppression, racism, sexism. What makes it such a good “weapon”?
Emel Mathlouthi: Music has this power to connect people in an instant and obvious way. It summons what is most beautiful in us and touches us. This makes it a perfect weapon of peace, courage and hope. It can inspire and empower the voiceless and the less fortunate. It pushes us to believe in ourselves, to believe in a fairer and more tolerant humanity.
You live in the USA. You who are driven by a furious desire for freedom and equality, how do you view the anti-abortion laws passed recently there?
Emel Mathlouthi: This is the subject that revolts me the most. My feminism has become more concrete and ready for action at any moment. As a woman, I have let so much injustice pass that I cannot tolerate any more. I can’t even believe we’re here. It’s so revolting, it’s absurd and unacceptable. Point.
In your duet with Vitalic for variations you interpreted the work of the Syrian poetess Ghada al-Samman. There is also a lot of poetry in your own texts. Your latest album is called The Tunis Diaries. When will a collection of Emel Mathloutih be in bookstores?
Emel Mathlouthi: Good question. It honors me because I love poetry. Thinking about a collection of my best writings is an idea that pleases me. In the meantime, I can nevertheless tell you that I am currently working on my autobiography.
You can listen to or buy Emel’s album right here:
Featured photo: Emel Mathlouthi © Stéphane Barbier