Pop music is a harsh business. Whatever broader context you want your songs to be a part of, it always ends up as a narrative aptly helping to sell a product. The public is a sucker for those stories that surround the music as some kind of by-product, and even having no narrative to fit in actually becomes the story of the "pure” artist, left intact by the industry. There are more or less complex narratives, but the paradox is crystal-clear: if you want your music to mean something, it should better stand in its own rights, otherwise you are going to have a hard time making people take it seriously.
In Emel Mathlouthi’s case, the narrative is quite easy to spot: her protest songs soundtracked the Jasmine Revolution in her home country, Tunisia, six years ago now. Her first album, Kelmti Horra was released one year after that, and since then she has been catalogued as "the voice of the revolution”, while her country is still struggling on its way to democracy, torn apart between various visions of what a people and its sub-groups can be. This album was a more than nice affair, trying to mix Arabic music with electronic elements, stemming from a vast array of influences, but the balance was probably too tame to help her out of the world-music box.
With her sophomore album, Ensen (Human), Emel takes a substantial step forward, that should make us listen to it for all that the music conveys, which goes well beyond the narrative frame. For this album, the 34-years-old singer/songwriter/producer first worked with the input of Tunisian musicians and then with renowned co-producers such as Amine Metani (Arabstazy), Johannes Berglund (The Knife, Ane Brun) and Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Sigur Ros), aiming to bring "North African analog rhythms and instruments through improvised and homemade electronica”. The result is as powerful as it is unique, a true achievement in its own terms.
Ensen is an album of extreme intensity, with fantastic dynamics. Every sound is here on purpose, as the result of a conscious process of leaving all the unnecessary behind. The compositions are given space to unfold from one section to the next, subtly moving the focus between different textures but always in a deep, cavernous sound full of ghosts and echoes. We get to hear (heavily processed) traditional instruments like the gumbri bass or the zukra flute, tribal percussions mixing bendir and dabke with heavy kick drum, dissonant strings, synth loops and fascinating vocals, all in Arabic, that move seamlessly alongside modal scales, generating an ever-changing territory.
"Instant” kicks off the album with a soaring minor-key melody set against a backdrop of atmospheric drones and distorted, almost industrial beats. It is more reminiscent of such Nordic dreampop artists like Bel Canto and Samaris than Mizwad music for that sake, her heartbreaking vocals likely to send shivers down your spine even though you don’t understand a single word of what she sings. Like the other most atmospheric songs on that album ("Layem”, "Khayef”, "Fi Kolli Yawmen”), it is both airy and extremely incarnate, thanks to the distinctive quality of Emel’s vocals and the inventiveness of the production. The following track, "Ensen Dhaif” ("Helpless Human”) remind of Hidden-era’s These New Puritans, its tremendous beats giving it an air of "We Want War” played with bagpipe instead of the hip hop samples.
But enough name-dropping, since Emel produces her own synthesis through her music, which is definitely bigger than the sum of its components. Each track features a considerable amount of treasures and each listening brings new elements to the fore, from the intertwining vocals of "Princess Melancholy” to the terrific bassline of "Lost”, the polyrhythmic intricacies of "Thamlaton” ("Drunkenness”) and the litanies of "Kaddesh” ("How many?)” and "Sallem” ("Give up”), whose repetitive lyrics (all translated in the booklet) embrace a series of questions and injunctions reflecting on the current state of the world.
So, what narrative should we listen to this album into? Does it fit into the "ethnic” box, as if it only documented some exotic music never meant to take the center of the stage? Or – on the opposite – should it be listened to as "just” music, devoid of any external concern, its Arabic roots as some sort of aesthetic idiosyncrasy?
We need narratives, they are what defines us. But something in Emel’s music stubbornly refuses to be defined ("I do not know if I’m Arabic / I do not know if I am silence or screaming / Am I embers or ashes? / Whiteness or dark?” reads the translation of what she sings at the beginning of the closing-track "Shkun Ena” ("Who am I”)). It exists somewhere beyond both apolitical isolationism and cultural appropriation; it builds roads and bridges but, similar in that to Tanya Tagaq, whose Inuit throat singing mixes with the boldest improvised music, never does so in a didactic way, staying true to the cathartic power of music as transformative experience. The urgency here is certainly not due to her using Occidental electronic devices, nor is it due to the simple fact that she sings in Arabic (even though, in our homogenizing pop culture, this clearly is a political act), but by being so deeply committed to her own music, she embarks us in a journey that reflects in its flesh the tragedies and hopes of the global world we live in. It might be just another narrative, exploited by the press release, which states that the album was made "in seven countries across three continents”, but in a time of ban and rejection, where Trump and the rising alt-rights are threatening all that this music stands for, it becomes all the more important to stand with it, as an anthem for more freedom together.