One definition of music could be: ‘that which is born from the marriage of Africa and the Arab world’. KrishnaRaj Iyengar writes about the sonic scene in Tunisia...
A hazy dream buzzing past like a 40s silent movie, then a whiff of exhilarating amber with the first rays of dawn, the sound of the waves in psychedelic caress on creamish white sand and finally, a mix of rustic Arabic and polished Parisian French... “Sabaah el Kheir! Bonjour!” was my mystical wake-up call on the first morning in Tunisia. Looking out of the ornate blue windows carved inside a bright white wall of my buddy Sidi Adel’s beach house had the Mediterranean blushing in blue at her much-awaited guest at Jerba Island, one of the most unique spots on the planet. She had just began unveiling her magic!
Punctuating the rhythm of the waves that my sailor buddy rightly deems ‘older than time’ were deep-throated chants permeating the cool North African summer breeze, drawing our spirits closer to their source, an old zawiya (Sufi centre), a few dusty alleys away.
The fragrance of Arabic Oud, a typical Moorish-Andalusian décor with exquisite chandeliers illuminating a gathering of turbaned mystics holding hands in a circle swaying back and forth, while there was a large daf (frame drum) in crescendo to the ‘Hu! Hu!’ ( He! He!) chants; the Sheikh leader of the ‘Haadhra’ gently whirling in the centre of the circle, singing the lines of legendary Arab Mystic Ibn el-Farid: Huwa-l-hubbu f’aslam bil hashaa (That is love, so surrender with all your soul), with hands raised in spiritual ecstasy. Then two young and fiery lads offered us turbans, and we joined in. This is how time surrendered to eternity.
After a hearty lunch at a traditional Jewish restaurant in the heart of Arabic Tunisia, something unimaginable in this age of conflict, we strolled the quaint Hara Kebirah, a Jewish neighbourhood, only to stumble upon a Jewish wedding! Known as ‘L’ile de Tolerance’ (Island of Tolerance), it was not surprising to find Jerbiens of both Muslim and Jewish communities in a dance trance. The shrill mezwed pipes mesmerised us, the pounding beat of the tabla, a traditional Berber drum, and a female singer with her ethereal ornamentations had the elders of the village in raptures.
After customary pecks on each cheek, Sidi Adel’s affectionate childhood friends invited us to join in the celebrations. On realising that this guest from a distant land not only resembled them, but also spoke and sang like them, I was invited to join the celebrations with a darbuka, a folkloric, clay goblet drum. A traditional attire perfumed with local utouraat was all I needed to be deemed a local, to invite marriage proposals by flirty copper-hued lassies, my unspoken passport to this blue and white wonderland!
With a growing interest in the island’s culture by international tourists, Jerba’s soirees of traditional dance and music enthrall audiences from the world over. Commencing with a sensuous belly dancer gracefully gyrating to catchy numbers, Jerba’s clubs are host to some of the most talented folk groups in the country. Apart from vigorous drumming and earthy, open-hearted singing, these folk performers are known for their energetic dance movements, coupled with breathtaking balancing acts, spontaneous participation being a quintessential part of the performances.
Driving through 360 degrees of nothingness, the Tunisian Sahara begins to grow on you! In the heart of a sleepy village called Medina is the abode of eccentric Sufi musician Mondher Abbes. “Huwallazee jameelun wa yuhibbu-l-jamaal, sufiyyun (He who is beautiful and loves beauty is a Sufi),” he said, prophetically welcoming me to his traditionally designed Saharan mud home. After a few rounds of tantalising mint tea topped with pine nuts, we let the sun take the bow, taking the stage for a night of mystic music!
A rendezvous with Tunisia’s ancient and endearing classical legacy was a dream come true. With influences from diverse regions, right from the Roman Empire, European classical streams, Greece, Andalusia, the Midde-East and even as far as India, Tunisian classical music is a vast ocean to delve into. A morning with one of the country’s revered classical icons, Anis Klibi, unfolded the myriad colours of classical maqams with intricate instrumentation on his ancient Andalusian Rebab, known colloquially as Rabeb, a boat-shaped bowed instrument with nylo-gut strings closely resembling the Indian Sarangi and reminiscent of the Golden Era of Moorish Spain, the zenith of spiritual, intellectual and musical excellence and exchange with the world.
Also a master of the kamanja, a local name for the Western violin, Klibi and his wife demonstrated soulful renditions under the age-old Malouf repertoire. As the cherubic maestro immersed himself in melody, I was reminded of the words of Rumi, one of the greatest mystics, to whom the Rebab was the secret to ‘Fat’h e Baab’ or ‘opening of the doors’.