‘This album tells the story of my Tunisia, the story of the dark years as seen through my eyes:—through my experience as a student, a young rebel and dissenter, through my years of artistic and ideological struggle, and through my immigrant tears, my suffering and my love of freedom.
I dedicate this album to all those who gave their lives so that one day Tunisia might be free. The road is long but every day...a new sun rises and new hopes emerge...and we are these hopes.’ EM
Born in Tunis, Emel is a songwriter, composer, guitarist, and singer who is bringing an amazing brand new sound to Tunisian music. Endowed with an outstanding voice, she evokes Joan Baez, Sister Marie Keyrouz and the Lebanese diva Fairouz, her captivating style is lyrical, with powerful rock, oriental and trip hop influences (she’s collaborated with Adrian Thaws AKA Tricky).
Emel began her artistic career at the age of 8 on stage at the small amphitheater in the Ibn Sina suburb of Tunis where she lived until the age of 25. She moved to France to pursue her career as a singer. The song “Kelmti Horra”, (my word is free) was taken up by the Arab Spring revolutionaries and sung on the streets of Tunis.
Emel Mathlouti: protest singer with a voice of jasmine 29 January 2011, the Tunisian streets are boiling, Ben Ali has fled. In Paris at Radio Nova’s studios during a special
broadcast “Nova listens to Tunisia” Emel launches into ‘Ya Tounes Ya Meskina’ with just her guitar. Social network sites simultaneously begin to sizzle. A bombardment of
messages ensues; ‘My beautiful Emeeeeeeeel!’; ‘Huge talent’; ‘Princesssssssse, Beautiful!’; ‘Well done Emel!... Emel Mathlouthi never chose to hide, on the contrary, she and many artists were like pioneers who upheld freedom of speech’.
Early 2012, a year later, Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free) is released. The title track, at a time when freedom is under watch, has already by 2008 become an anthem to popular risings and maintains its stridency in these uncertain times. The album is the cornerstone of a musical genre that spreads beyond Tunisia. Emel is Mediterranean and urban; fiery and with a radiant voice.
It all began on her housing estate on the outskirts of Tunis where Emel dreams of art but studies architecture, maths and engineering. Rock music tempts her more, at the time (the beginning of the 00s), and there’s no question of singing in Arabic. With her band from university, she veers into goth. She likes Pink Floyd, is fascinated by Dylan and become infatuated with Joan Baez. While at home, she’s brought up on classical, jazz and Chiekh Iman, the Egyptian protest singer troubadour.
In 2005, her friends persuade her to cover the Lebanese bard Marcel Khalife and as a result she sets the great national poet Mahmoud Darwish’s oeuvre to music and starts to write her own lyrics. In Arabic: Palestine, human rights in her own country, in a Tunisia under surveillance but not completely silent, Emel’s voice carries, she starts her own band and appears at the alternative venue El Teatro, but she starts to become a victim of intimidation. She’s threatened with a ban as a result of her activities in student unions. She has no access to radio or TV but is the winner of the RMC Moyen Orient 2006 prize, and it’s in Jordan that she first sings all her compositions in Arabic.
She becomes a Parisian in 2007 and forges a repertoire mainly in Arabic and hones her skills at the Studio Cite des Arts where she makes her first record: a self-produced mini-album with cello. Thanks to Culture-France she tours the world: Ecuador, Georgia, Yemen and Paris where RFI book her for their stage at the annual Fete de la Musique along with Yael Naim, Asa and Hindi Zahra. While her live video of Kelmti Horra shot at the Bastille does the rounds on the web in a Tunisia where revolt is fomenting, she collaborates with the dub rock group Mei Tei Sho, meets Tricky as well as CharlElie Couture. She’s noticed in small Parisian venues (Entrepot, French K-wa), at festivals, Digital Bled in Paris as well as Les Suds in Arles, and importantly begins compiling a repertoire with a view to producing her first album proper.
Kelmti Horra consists of 10 gems principally in Arabic (both Tunisian dialect and classical) with occasional ‘drops’ into French and English, all self-produced. The music has electro and trip hop rhythms and a modern sound – a new way forward for Tunisian music. Each track is built around a specially selected group of musicians. The songs are inspired by key moments in her life and her surroundings - she is a songwriter with the rare knack of turning torment and suffering into dreams.