Posted by Tess Waggoner on October 18, 2019 at 4:35 PM
The Arab American Institute Foundation was delighted to host Emel Mathlouthi in concert at the historic Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, October 17, 2019, in partnership with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the American Tunisia Association. The performance marked the last stop of her North America tour for her latest album, Everywhere We Looked Was Burning, released on September 27, 2019 by Partisan Records.
After Mathlouthi’s performance at the 21st annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards last spring, where we presented her with an award of Special Recognition, we were convinced that her work deserves to be shared with the largest audience possible. While there's no denying the vital role her voice played during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, last spring, we sought to recognize both the bravery she exhibited in her early career, and the powerful manner by which she doggedly continues to spread her message of humanism and social justice even as she expands popular assumptions of musical genre and artistic possibility. The full scale of her powerful message was on display last night at the Lincoln.
We were treated to a range of songs from her most recent album, her first predominantly English language release. Emel also sang her sole Arabic track from the album, Merrouh, a song that, she explained, was inspired by the immense suffering of those trying to cross the Mediterranean by sea in recent years. Rippling underneath Emel’s soaring voice came grit, glitch, chaos, and the sounds of nature accompanied by visceral syncopation and swelling melodies. Her evocative performance style was on full display when she sang the dance-inducing Thalamton (Drunkenness), also from the second album.
Before she sang the final song of her prepared set, the title track from the new album, Emel made special mention of the people of Lebanon and the ongoing ecological devastation there. Receiving at least three full standing ovations over the course of the evening, Emel treated us to not one but three heart-wrenching songs in an unforgettable encore that epitomized the way she melds her music and message so effectively. The first encore song was Ensan Dhaif (Little, Helpless Human), which was named “best new track” by the leading music review site Pitchfork in 2016. She dedicated the song to the ordinary people whose stories are not heard nor told.
Mathlouthi next explained that she was re-introducing a song to her repertoire for the tour in response to the ongoing suffering of the Kurdish people. A song she first learned and performed years ago in Turkey, “Ahmedo Ronî” is a famous example of dengbej, a unique Kurdish oral storytelling tradition which centers songs of lament and which carry the history of their struggles as an ethnic community. Mathlouthi sang masterfully in the Kurmanji language and in the distinct and challenging vocal style that defines dengbej.
To close the evening, Mathlouthi graced her Washington, D.C. audience with a stirring rendition of Kelmti Horra, the song she sang on the streets of Tunisia during the ouster of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and famously at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, when the Dialogue Quartet from Tunisia was awarded for their unity in writing Tunisia’s constitution after the revolution.
Though reticent to explore the metaphor herself, the timing of this album of reflection, mourning and rebirth- of seeking refuge and rescue and reminding ourselves of our interconnectivity in times of chaos and fear - is most fitting as both the U.S. and Tunisia experience dramatic political upheaval and new forms of democratic engagement. Here at AAIF, we have spent the last week celebrating as we hear first-hand about the successful recent presidential elections from the Tunisian participants of the inaugural U.S.- MENA Experiential partnership, who visited Washington, D.C. in the lead-up to the vote. As she sang her iconic freedom song, Tunisian Americans in the audience raised the flag of their homeland and the audience sang along.
Emel’s latest work carries the listener along with the muddied, anxious heartbeat of one speaking truth to power. Her cinematic style and enormous emotive range moved us greatly, and we were so inspired by her passionate performance.