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Ed Webb

Tunisia's Dying Jazz | Foreign Policy - 0 views

  • Bidali is one of the last living practitioners of stambeli, a uniquely Tunisian hybrid of musical genre, healing practice, and religious ceremony. It’s deeply rooted in the history of a specific community: the descendants of slaves brought to the region from sub-Saharan Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also has close links to Sufism, an ancient form of Islamic mysticism that uses music, dance, and rhythm to induce trance-like states that are supposed to bring listeners closer to the essence of the divine
  • President Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first postcolonial leader, gave state support to many forms of art, but stambeli wasn’t among them; it didn’t fit the modern image of the country he was trying to shape
  • while subsequent police crackdowns have landed Salafists of all stripes in jail, some of the trends they promoted, such as moral self-policing and austere interpretations of Islamic cultural heritage, have taken root in society. With its unorthodox religious associations, stambeli has found itself in the firing line
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  • because of the rising influence of orthodox interpretations of the faith, stambeli artists are careful to stress the monotheistic, Islamic essence of their practice
  • The origins of stambeli music resemble those of American jazz (even though the two genres don’t sound alike). In both cases, the musical traditions of former slaves combined with the diverse cultural influences of their new environments to create something radically new. Whereas slaves arriving in Louisiana mixed their music and practices with European, Caribbean, and American ingredients, slaves arriving in Tunis during the same period fused their animist practices with North African versions of mystical Sufism and orthodox Islam. Mounir Argui, a theater director and music producer who works with Bidali, says that the metal castanets that play such a prominent role in stambeli performances evoke “the sounds of chains and shackles” that the slaves once wore, while the chanting recalls the “moaning.”
  • the Tunisian state never prioritized the preservation of stambeli, focusing instead on the art and culture it considered highbrow
  • Many Tunisians see stambeli as an alien phenomenon associated with blacks, who are already widely viewed as not quite Tunisian. In post-revolutionary Tunisia, where asserting the Islamic character of the country has become an important political symbol for some, the pagan origins of stambeli also cause suspicion
  • As long as some Tunisians continue to see freedom of religion and freedom of art as mutually exclusive, the rare traditions like stambeli that manage to straddle both will find little space
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