Emel (Mathlouthi) in session for Club Side – Radio France International – December 30, 2020 – RFI, Paris –
A short, but profound set from Tunisian/French singer/songwriter Emel, whose full name is Emel Mathlouthi. She is is best known for her protest song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word is Free”), which became an anthem for the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. Her first studio album, also titled Kelmti Horra, was released worldwide by Harmonia Mundi in 2012 to critical acclaim. Her second album, Ensen, was released by Partisan Records in 2017, also to considerable acclaim. In 2015 she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. Mathlouthi is often referred to as the “Voice of Tunisian Revolution” due to her song “Kelmti Horra”.
Emel Mathlouthi started singing and acting at 8 years old in a suburb of her hometown Tunis. She wrote her first song when she was 10 years old. She discovered her strong vocal capacities when she was 15, encouraged by her entourage and inspired by great pop singers of the 90’s. She found a strong refuge in heavy metal a bit later and gothic music and formed her first metal band at a university in Tunis when she was 19. A few years later deeply moved by the voice and ideas of Joan Baez after her bandmate played “The Boxer” for her, she quit the band and began writing political songs, discovering her frustration by the lack of opportunities and the apathy of her compatriots, such as “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” (“Poor Tunisia”). In 2006 she was a finalist in the Prix RMC Moyen-Orient Musique competition. She decided to move to Paris, France in 2008 when the Tunisian government banned her songs from radio and TV. Although banned from Tunisian airwaves, bootlegs of her live performances in France circulated on the internet in Tunisia. After the death of Mohamed Bouazizi she dedicated an Arabic version of the Joan Baez song “Here’s To You” to him.
She was recorded on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba singing “Kelmti Horra” to protesters and it became a viral video. She has given concerts in Egypt and Iraq, and performed in Canada at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal.
At the beginning of July 2012, she gave a groundbreaking concert in Baghdad, Iraq. On 28 July she gave a concert at the Sfinks Festival in Belgium, where she received a standing ovation for her cover of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”. In 2013, after her first concert in Cairo since the revolution, Ahram Online described her as “The Fairuz of her generation”. She opened for Dead Can Dance in the festival Les nuits de Fourvière in Lyon and performed at the WOMAD Festival at Charlton Parkin the UK. Israeli authorities refused to let her enter Ramallah to perform, so she sang in front of a camera in Jordan. The small show was broadcast to the Palestinian audience in a theater in Ramallah.
In 2015 she was invited to perform at both the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and The Nobel Peace Prize Concert along with A-ha and Aurora, where she performed two renditions of her song “Kelmti Horra,” one accompanied only by a guitarist, Karim Attoumane, and the other with a full orchestra and chorus. The concert was hosted by Jay Leno, who praised her in the concert press conference as being the first Arabic-language singer to catch his attention.
In 2017 she performed returned to Tunisia for her first concert there in five years, headlining the prestigious Carthage Festival. That summer she also performed at the Beitaddine Festival in Lebanon, and the SummerStage festival in Central Park, New York City.
So, if you haven’t become familiar with her yet – now’s your chance. I think she is rather perfect to start this fractured and strange week.