Outside the 'ethnic box'

Emel Mathlouthi brings her revolutionary voice to Stanford

When Tunisian musician and activist Emel Mathlouthi created her new record label, she decided to name it Little Human, as a reminder that "even as little people in a world run by giants, we can sometimes create and become bigger versions of ourselves in ways that touch others and help us all find truth in life," she explained in an email interview.

As an artist who's been called "the voice of the Arab Spring," Mathlouthi has been making a big impact on her world throughout her career. Her heartfelt music mixes the personal and the political and defies genres, led by her powerful vocal prowess. Banned by Tunisian radio for her outspoken, pointed songs and facing government oppression and censorship, she moved to France in 2008 but has remained a strong presence throughout the Middle East, performing across the region, as well as in Europe and Canada. Mathlouthi will perform locally as part of Stanford Live's "Islamic Voices" series, which explores the diversity of modern Muslim music, on Wednesday, Oct. 5.

Mathlouthi grew up with a jazz-and-blues-loving father and began singing at a young age. She found inspiration in artists such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and, perhaps surprisingly to those who think of her as an electro-folk artist, from heavy-metal musicians, too.

"The metal guys are real rebels, and they had something they wanted to say and don't get enough credit as artists and changemakers," she said.

At university, she formed a metal band, then moved on to solo performance, playing guitar and covering protest songs. Outraged by Tunisia's repressive regime and lack of opportunities for young people, and moved by those speaking out for change, she then began writing her own songs. Her music quickly resonated with her peers and became a soundtrack to the revolution.

"My songs spoke to a new generation of young people craving for change and for free voices and speech," she said. "The revolution that we have begun in Tunisia is a very interesting thing, really a powerful signal to ourselves and to others that people can take their destiny in their own hands. But still we have challenges that need to be addressed -- poverty, unemployment, inequality, discrimination, lack of dignity and most of all a general climate of repression that we cannot shake so quickly."

Her songs explore issues that have a reach far beyond the Tunisian revolution. "Layem," for example, focuses on the problem of homelessness.

"To me it is still unfathomable that societies leave so many people on the margins, alone. Maybe they have mental problems, family problems, and they are just left to suffer. I don't accept that, and at home we always cook something extra and bring it to the homeless. But that is not enough," she said.

In 2015, she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, to a stadium filled with 8,000 people and accompanied by a 60-piece orchestra and 10-member choir. Comedian Jay Leno, who hosted the event, told her it was the first time he'd heard someone singing in Arabic and that it made him curious in a positive way.

"Music can help open people's minds and fight against the smallness that some politicians want people to be attached to. In short, a pretty cool night!" she said.

At her Stanford performance, where she'll be joined by keyboardist Pier Luigi Salami, and drummer Shawn Crowder, her concert will be preceded by a discussion led by professors Ramzi Salti and Joel Beinin on the Arab Spring and music's role in it.

Mathlouthi is well aware that when she performs for Western audiences, she is representing modern Middle Eastern culture, and sometimes confronting the stereotypes that go along with that.

"I wish to present an image that's not exotic; that's not necessarily speaking about any tradition. As a Tunisian artist, I don't feel the need to represent a specific cliched picture, or to carry a flag everywhere I go," she said. "I want to fight for my right to build the music that I hear without being kept in an ethnic box, to be allowed to transcend all genres."

Her first album, "Kelmti Horra" ("my word is free"), was released in 2012, and her second, "Ensen," is due out soon. The new album blends sounds from traditional Tunisian instrumentation with contemporary electronic production, and represents a blend of all Mathlouthi's influences and interests.

"I sing in Arabic, yet it is not 'world music' with all of its ethnic typecasting," she said. "It is something different that I hope will show people that artists from everywhere are artists before anything else -- not just symbols of what a culture might be or should be like."

What: Emel Mathlouthi in concert

Where: Bing Concert Hall,

When: Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 7:30 p.m. (pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m.)

Cost: $15-$65

Info: Go to Stanford Live.

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