Emel Mathlouthi is a Tunisian musician, whose 2012 song Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free) became an anthem for young protestors during the Tunisian revolution and beyond during the Arab Spring. Now living in Paris, she was visiting family in her home town of Tunis when the Covid 19 pandemic hit. She tells Hook about the experience, and how it led to her new album The Tunis Diaries.
When COVID began I was visiting my family in Tunis and got confined in my childhood home, where my daughter and I went to celebrate my father’s 85th birthday.
I was separated from my husband, my band, my collaborators, and all my equipment. But I was immersed in nostalgia and memory, and surrounded by the blossoming wild flowers, the tweeting birds, and blue skies of my hometown. I was also sheltered in with two of my favourite people in the world, and together we were three generations under the same roof, free from school, from work and from outside world distractions.
Nostalgia and the feeling of home drove me to want to create and to revisit the old spirits that haunted my first years as an artist. All I had was my laptop and a zoom recorder, but through facebook I was able to find a fan who lent me a classical guitar (a guitar I haven’t played since my first ever guitar when I was 18) and a much-coveted mini-USB cable which made the zoom recorder turn into an interface capable of decent recordings.
This was early-pandemic, and the mania of live performances from home was at an early stage. In my part of the world, the biggest craze of that moment was a belly dancer, who every night enthralled the masses on Instagram at the appointed hour, making me both curious about doing my own lives and equally apprehensive that with such competition nobody would tune in.
I started playing lives after putting my daughter to sleep if she did! Sometimes with very little preparation time and last minute setlist changes, and the most remarkable thing happened, the turn-out and feedback was so great, especially among my compatriots for who it meant so much that we were going through the same struggle, apart but still on the same ground.. And as I played and sang so many of my hits and standards, I realized I was falling back in love with music that is simple, direct, and from the heart. Far away from the luxury of music studios and gear, I was confronted with my very own abilities, and yet challenged to produce a music that is relevant and emotionally driven.
I started my career as a young girl, with no infrastructure, no budget, and no team, taking only my guitar and my voice onto any stage that would have me; when not doing that, I would be rehearsing in my stairwell, with its pleasant natural reverb, a sound which I have never succeeded to reproduce electronically.
As I played my lives from the womb of my own childhood I began to feel more at home, in so many senses, than I have in a very long time with no clock ticking to pack up. After living on three continents, touring to dozens more, and recording three studio albums of increasing complexity, I was back with the basics, I was myself again, and nothing else.
Encouraged by the feedback of my lives, I began allowing myself two to 3 hours per day to experiment and record, after making lunch for my father and my daughter, and morning homeschooling and parenting. Using the simplest and most improvised set up, I cleaned up the rooftop room from years of dust, cleared the desk from towers of old school manuals and settled by the 2 corner windows : We live on the outskirts of Tunis, on a hilltop, so my view is of the whole city, rolling into the sea. Green pine trees were abounding, the pink Bougainville was in full bloom, and the architecture of the city stretched out like a river of white cascading into the bluest of seas, the Mediterranean.
This was my view as I recorded, a view which was matched in richness only by the sounds around me:
At day, the birds, the singing of the shepherd and his sheep on the hills behind me, the punctual singing of the call to prayer sometimes I would get interrupted by the invitations from my neighbor to say yes to a plate of food from the nightly iftar or to give me a support shout out as she is hanging the laundry in her own rooftop.
at night the multitudes of cicadas and frogs echoing from the neighboring hills in a tight vocal competition balanced with millions of light dots from the city.
Every day I retreated to the rooftop and indulged in the music that moves me. Every day I recorded at least 2 songs, either my own take on covers, revisiting my first loves and decisive early inspirations, or exploring for the first time acoustic takes on some of my tunes.
I recorded them each on very few takes and mostly 2 tracks: 1 for the guitar and voice an one for backing vocals.
I later sent them to a long-time collaborator Karim Attoumane who knows me well, for only the lightest of mixing. As time passed I realized I had accumulated a content that was intertwined and indivisible and I decided to share it as a double album with 2 parts: Day and Night.
For me The Tunis Diaries is an intimate record of how I passed a big portion of my confinement, which ended up being much deeper than I would have ever imagined and a unique journey with my dad and my daughter that taught me a lot about myself, family and giving. It is also a tribute to my home city Tunis, that gave me so much and an effort to share back with her and with my fans, the sense of togetherness that they shared with me during those confusing and scary times - which, alas, are still with us as I write this.