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Why this traditional instrument is back on Tunisia's music charts

A wave of nostalgia has hit Tunisian clubs after the success of a 1990s-themed Ramadan TV series inspired by traditional mezoued music.

On a strip of beach outside the Tunisian capital at the Yuka night club, party-goers queue at the bar wearing red traditional “checheya” hats, jasmine behind their ears and floral scarves over their heads and shoulders. It's 10 p.m., and there is barely room to move in the packed venue, where thousands of Tunisians have come to dance to old “mezoued” songs. 

The event is one of a number of club nights inspired by the TV series “Nouba” (Mystic Trance), a story of love, vengeance and mezoued music. The series takes its cue from a 1991 concert by that name that put mezoued (commonly spelled “mezwed” in English) back on stage after years of being sidelined as “low culture.” Named after a type of North African bagpipe, mezoued traveled from Libya to Tunisia, where songs were composed and sung in rural communities, many of whose residents would later migrate to the capital, Tunis. 

“[The music] makes us think of our grandparents, the old neighborhoods, weddings, the smells of these places,” Sara Mejdi, a criminal science student, told Al-Monitor at the Yuka event. “I wasn’t even alive at the time of the [Nouba] show and these singers, but I was born into this culture.” 

Abdelhamid Bouchnak, director of the series Nouba, which was broadcast during Ramadan this year, wanted his soap opera to be as faithful to reality and tradition as possible. 

“I told myself that everyone needs to be able to see themselves in each character,” Bouchnak told Al-Monitor. “I tried to be sincere and credible because this is a collective memory, and I need to respect the collective imagery.” 

The TV series takes viewers back to the 1990s with remakes of the songs they all know providing the soundtrack to a story of friendship, music and betrayal in a Tunisian prison, where a subgenre of mezoued, “zendeli,” originated. Bouchnak’s favorite song in the series is the now-ubiquitous “Sabeba” (Snitches), in which the main character, Maher, talks to his mother from prison and tells her to be patient, that he will soon be out. 

The renewed interest in Nouba in part reflects young Tunisians' return to their roots. There are sold out stadium concerts for mezoued and the Sufi-trance music hadhra, and young fashion labels have turned to Tunisian folklore for inspiration.

Tunisian rappers are also drawing on national traditions. Artmasta featured mezoued singer Hedi Donia on his 2016 track “Khallouni,” and Balti said in 2017 that he collaborates with folk singers, among them Zina Gasriniya, because it guarantees commercial success. Previous works by Bouchnak have also focused on Tunisian heritage. His 2018 film “Dachra,” Tunisia’s first horror film, tapped into Tunisian fears by playing on superstitions from local folklore. 

“[Mezoued] is an outcry of frustration. It is unsettling and soulful,” Zouhir Gabsi, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies at Deakin University, told Al-Monitor. “These communities were marginalized because of their region, their accent. They sang about betrayal and exile. The music then became commonplace. It was loved by Tunisians, but it wasn’t considered ‘proper art.’”

Despite the music’s mournful origins, the mood it inspires is anything but. The people on stage sing their pain over upbeat drums and meandering tunes, while the audience dances to their sorrow, arms whirling in the air and hips swaying. This contrast is one of the things that intrigued Bouchnak, who was seven years old at the time of the Nouba concert. His father, the singer Lotfi Bouchnak, was one of the acts, which gave the young Abdelhamid firsthand experience of the culture and backstage access to the artists.

“I was in the corridors, with the dancers, the colors, the scarred faces. This is what I presented in the soap opera. It is the mind of a child,” Bouchnak said. “It is the Tunisian gangster world, and it was exciting to be a part of it, a world that we were forbidden from entering and penetrating.” 

Under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, mezoued was never heard on radio or TV or included in festivals. “Bourguiba wanted to Frenchify and modernize and so he saw this culture as a backward form of expression that is not worthy of a modernized decolonized nation,” said Nouri Gana, associate professor of comparative literature and Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA. “These bagpipes didn’t fit in with his vision.” 

Bouchnak described the early years under the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as “very cool, artistically.” Ali Saidane, author of “The Mezoued Saga,” told Al-Monitor that the type of mezoued Ben Ali authorized, however, was a “politically correct version created by showbiz men.” He explained, “Mezoued was used as a way to give the regime a ‘liberal’ facade, all the while the police surveilled the proceedings of the show.”

Today, post-dictatorship, the possibilities for expression in Tunisia are greater than before, yet artists and audiences still look to the past for inspiration. 

Slim Dhib, a young actor who lives in Tunis, thinks that nostalgia is a safe bet for artists. “There is a risk that something contemporary doesn’t work,” Dhib told Al-Monitor, but he also thinks the revival of traditional themes is a good thing.

“Speaking for myself, I’m having an identity crisis,” Dhib stated. “Am I Francophone, Arabophone, am I Tunisian, Mediterranean? I’m interested in knowing my origins.”

Gana asserted, “There is a sense of security in the past. Nostalgia offers a form of refuge, a shield from the flows of global cultural domination.” He added, “The question of identity has never been settled in Tunisia.… What is in the margins now, 20 years from now might be integrated as what Tunisians identify as.”

Lina Maarouri, a young auditor wearing a red floral scarf at Yuka, feels the music represents her. “This [music] is Tunisia. It is our roots, our identity,” she told Al-Monitor. “I always listened to Western songs and forget our heritage, but with the soap opera, it came back.” That said, first and foremost at Yuka, she had come to dance and relax. 

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