A mix of traditional sounds liven up Ramadan nights in Tunis

A mix of traditional sounds liven up Ramadan nights in Tunis
Feature: Musical ensembles and performers brighten up the Tunisian capital in a rich, savvy mixture of styles throughout the holy Muslim month.
6 min read
29 May, 2019
A rich musical agenda accompanies the nights of Ramadan in Tunisia [Getty]

On Friday night, an attentive audience populated the hall of The Rachidia, an artistic and cultural association specialised in Tunisian music, in the old city of Tunis.

In a beautiful architectural setting, an ensemble of ten musicians and singers from the association's section of Monastir city gave a concert dedicated to Malouf, the most popular form of traditional Tunisian music originating from Arab-Andalusian music.

The small orchestra offered a lively performance alternating string and percussive music, clapping and passionate voices with a hint of Berber influence in the rhythms and the forms.

"We strive to preserve and promote the Tunisian cultural heritage, retain its fine, beautiful and warm traditional taste. I think we are succeeding in our mission," explained Mouhli Hedi, head of The Rachidia which is the first musical institution created in Tunisia and one of the oldest ones of  Arab music.

Established in 1934, The Rachidia is a veritable conservatory of Arab-Andalusian music where most of today's great musicians studied and a symbol of Tunisian music identity.

Established in 1934, The Rachidia is a veritable conservatory of Arab-Andalusian music where most of today's great musicians studied and a symbol of Tunisian music identity

Located in the heart of the Tunis Medina, the prestigious institute is hosting a set of musical events over the month of Ramadan under a festival with the title of The Nights of The Rachidia in the Medina.

"Ramadan in the old city brings an exceptional scent. With its colours, lights and charm, the Medina adds beauty and warmth to Tunisian music during this month," Hedi commented.

"I love Malouf. It's wonderful and traditional. It's Ramadan time," a girl called Sabrina said with a smile, walking out of the concert hall with her friend. She found out about the event by chance.

"Every day of Ramadan, I come to the old city and spend time with my family and friends," she conitnued. "It's a special time of the year, a recall to spirituality for me."

Standing by the entrance to the hall where the musical ensemble was playing Tunisian rhythms tirelessly, a young man named Skander said he stopped by after he heard from the street a beautiful old melody. It was the same song by Tunisian singer Choubeila Rached that he was listening to just two days before.

"I often listen to this type of music during Ramadan. It brings back good memories, the spirit of Ramadan, and it's part of our musical heritage," Skander noted.

The Rachidia orchestra from the Monastir section perform

Like many Tunisians, he is keen on looking back to the past and rediscovering traditions in the holy fasting month. Whether that is going for walks through the Medina, sharing special food during the evening meal (iftar) with relatives and friends at home, exchanging sweets or enjoying traditional music.

A short walk away from The Rachidia, sounds of Malouf were reverberating through a little street. At Eskifa Arts centre, a music venue and cafe, a trio consisting of a singer, piano player and a drummer performed in a small hall delighting a public of both young and old people.

Amid sounds of violins, drums and flutes, people strolling in the old Medina of Tunis, sipping coffee or smoking water pipes, others getting together to chat.

Throughout this month, a wide range of concerts and cultural events are taking place in historical places, music halls, cafes and in open-air spaces across the Tunisian capital.

A rich musical agenda accompanies the nights of Ramadan featuring a variety of styles such as Arab and Tunisian classical music, Sufi music, Hadhra (one of Tu­nisia's oldest Sufi traditions), Arab-Andalusian Malouf and Stambali (a rhythmic music inspired by sub-Saharan African musical tradition).

A rich musical agenda accompanies the nights of Ramadan featuring a variety of styles such as Arab and Tunisian classical music, Sufi music, Hadhra, Arab-Andalusian Malouf and Stambali 

The Center of Arab and Mediterranean Music (CAMM), which is housed in the prestigious Ennejma Ezzahra Palace below the town of Sidi Bou Said, north of Tunis, organised a series of concerts titled 'Ramadan nights at Ennejma Ezzahra' devoted to Sufi music and religious chants. The festival combined music, dance and singing in a mystic atmosphere. 

"Within the framework of Tunis selected as 2019 'Capital of Islamic Culture', our event planning this year highlights the richness of Islamic culture in the arts and the rhythm of Arab musical heritage while offering a range of musical styles," observed Hamdi Makhlouf, CAMM's coordinator and musicologist.

He emphasised how Tunisians enjoy anything that is traditional during the Muslim month, from seasonal food and TV programmes to music and time spent out after sunset.

"There are festivals and concerts with music for all tastes around the city running all along Ramadan. Tunisians have plenty to choose from," Makhlouf added.

Back at The Rachidia, Skander told there are so many music events happening in this period that it is impossible to attend all of them. Quite often, he has to select between two or three shows on the same day. 

He expressed some nostalgia when reflecting over the spiritual side of Ramadan. "There's something to do with memory, religious education and customs. As we grow up many of us distance ourselves from traditions, and now we feel we need to regain some spirituality," the young Tunisian observed.

Earlier on Thursday night, Moroccan band Bnat Timbouktou played their first concert in Tunis with Gnawa music. In Morocco, the Gnawa are descendants of slaves who were deported to Maghreb from sub-Saharan countries. They have inherited a rich culture of rituals and spiritual traditions mixing poetry, music, and dance. Traditionally, playing Gnawa in public is still a widespread taboo for women.

Bnat Timbouktou perform during a concert in downtown Tunis

Morocco's first all-female Gnawa group, Bnat Timbouktou counts three performers playing the qraqab (double castanets) and one mastering the ginbri (a wood-and-skin bass that plays an essential role in the genre) music. Asmâa Hamzaoui, the leader of the group, is the first woman gimbri musician in Morocco.

On Mohamed Brahmi square, downtown Tunis, the young women Gnawa musicians performed in a fascinating atmosphere made up of the magical sound of the ginbri, the warm rhythms, the chanting and Asmâa's distinctive vocals.

"In Morocco, listening to Gnawa during Ramadan is common. This music is typically played during iftar in family homes and restaurants," said Aicha Hamzaoui, sister of Asmâa and member of the band.  

"In our concerts we chant the name of Allah, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and nature," she continued. "Gnawa is spiritual as well as therapeutic, it's important to promote this style."

Talking with his two friends, a man in the public named Mohamed was ready to comment: "It's a whole show. The rhythm, the performers' outfits, the atmosphere. I like it a lot. It's a (North African) cultural alternative to the dominant Arab-Muslim tradition."

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec