Emel Mathlouthi: Ensen Review

Emel Mathlouthi’s new album Ensen presents complex songs dominated by percussions and electronic sounds. The songs are political and social in nature while being emotional and personal.

35-year old singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi began her career a long time ago before she became famous with Kelmti Hourra (My Word is Free). While listening to American singer-songwriters from the 60s such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others, she was equally inspired by musicians such as Sheikh Imam (1918-1995) who was an Egyptian artist and famous for collaborating with the equally famous poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013). Other artists such as Marcel Khalifa, who is a Lebanese composer, singer and oud player played an important role as well. Her earliest experiment in making music was playing in a metal band. She is now often described as a „protest musician“ herself.

Recorded in New York, Stockholm, Reykjavik, in the Cevennes Mountains, Treminiers Countryside, Montreuil, Sousse, and Studio Bellevue the result is ten songs mostly in Arabic except for one song, Lost. Her new album is a combination of mostly percussions and electronic sounds but she still makes use of the acoustic guitar, establishing a new sound which is familiar, yet different. The album is co-produced by Valgeir Siguròsson, who is famous for collaborations with Björk, and by her main collaborator, the French/Tunisian producer Amine Metani. The single Ensen Dhaif (Human, Helpless Human) was selected by Pitchfork as the best new track, and overall the album has been positively received.

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Emel Mathlouthi’s performance in Berlin, April 2017 (Berghain Kantine)

While working on the new sound, and becoming more electronic, she found difficulties in finding the right producer for making Ensen. She decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to make Ensen possible. It is not uncommon, that artists uses crowdfunding campaigns to help with their artistic endeavors. Jordanian based-band El-Morabba3 has previously used crowdfunding campaigns, alongside Mashrou3 Leila, and more recently Palestinian artist Ruba Shamshoum and Egyptian singer-songwriter Youssra El-Hawary.

This method of crowdfunding helps the artist to be independent in their music. She writes that:

„I approached many record labels. None was ready to leap. All had many good things to say, but none could imagine how I could fit. To some I was too exotic, to others not enough. The world music labels wanted to keep me in some kind of an ethnic box. The indie labels can’t get past the fact that I sing in Arabic. (…) I want to self-release this album, to send a strong message to the industry that it can no longer confine us to our backgrounds and to have the independence needed to create an art that is true to me.“

All of the songs are complex compositions, marking a new style in the music making of Emel Mathlouthi. Using Percussions, and electronic sounds as the main elements in the album, she creates a consistent, sometimes dramatic sound. The album needs to be listened to more than once because of its complex texture and structures. In each of the songs, most of the time, Mathlouthi’s voice stands out as the main focus point, which is underlined by the sounds and instruments arranged in between. In addition to the electronic and percussionist sounds, Mathlouthi worked with an instrument, native to the Tunisian culture called the Gumbri, played by Amine Metani. The Gumbri is a kind of string instrument which fits beautifully into Emel Mathlouthi’s soundscape.  The album’s style is switching between minimalistic compositions, to very dramatic styles of sounds such as Khayef (Afraid). She does not refrain from using unusal melodies, and scales, but the songs are often operating within the western scales. Most of the songs remain quite dark, and especially her single Ensen Daif is full of minor scales, creating a dark sound. On this song, she says that:

„it is about the fact that we all think we’re in control and we’re told to push and give – but we’re nothing but twigs at the mercy of winds.“

 

The lyrics of the songs – are poetically, politically, and socially inspired by Emel Mathlouthi’s own experience and the world we are living in. On Facebook she writes that:

„the album is a long introspection, a trip to my psych and soul, stories of humanity, sometimes fragile and dense, sometimes breaking tortured, sometimes empathetic, sometimes strong, sometimes bright sometimes dark and gloomy…. „

One of the more standout songs Kadesh (How Many?) is one of those politically and socially charged songs.

How many, how many battered women/How, how many people migrate/How many, how many shipwrecked boats/How difficult is the gestation?

(Translation by Mohamed Mathlouthi)

Her songs have sometimes traces of Björk, and other electronic, experimental artists. Nevertheless her music is tied to traditional elements which she still tries to keep in her music. Ensen marks a new phase in her musical career, shifting away from the acoustically charged sound of Kelmti Hourra to a more experimentally, electronic sound.

Ensen was released with Partisan Records.

 

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