Originally from the city of Ibn Sina, Tunis, self-taught artist Emel Mathlouthi offers a work of haunting and melodramatic beauty with Kelmti Horra.

Arriving back in her homeland after several years in France, most of the songs on her new album concern the pain and suffering of her country. Singing about hope, freedom, sadness and anger, the track ‘Ya Tounes Ya Meskina’ (‘Poor Tunisia’) is a melancholy lament about the plea of fellow landsmen, while ‘Dfina’ (‘Burial’) expresses Mathlouthi’s wish to “bury her head with its illusions, thoughts and visions.”

She sings in her native tongue, and opener ‘Houdou’On’ (‘Calm’) gives the feel of an Arabic prayer.
Citing Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as strong influences, Mathlouthi also feels inspired by the Arab dissident scene – citing the musical idols of the revolutionary movements of the 70s.

Her powerful vocals are accompanied by various instruments like guitar (played by Emel), while her backing musicians contribute with violin, flamenco guitar, Jew’s harp, cello, spinet, sax, duduk, djembe, tambourine… the list goes on.
The result is an intoxicating and intriguing sound fusing native Arabic roots with Western rock and trip-hop elements, while East European and Celtic music add additional flavour. The album’s title song, ‘Kelmti Horra’ (‘My Word Is Free’), is particularly striking in its subdued arrangement.

The accompanying CD-booklet displays plenty of imagery, revealing the inspirations for Mathlouti’s music along her creative journey –photos taken during the Tunis curfew in January 2011, while other pictures depict an atmospheric looking sunset over Rennes in France, and various coastal sceneries.

You don’t have to be in the political ‘know how’ to fully understand what the songs are about, though the booklet provides translations in both French and English. The track ‘Stranger’ is actually performed in English (doesn’t quite work combined with Middle Eastern sounds).
Either way, Emel Mathlouthi’s incredible voice and the music speak for itself.