Love, revolution and home: The electrifying works of Tunisian star Badiaa Bouhrizi
Tunisian singer, composer and songwriter Badiaa Bouhrizi, otherwise known under her pseudonym Neysatou has been a frequent performer and infectious voice for social justice since the early noughties.
Despite her prolific musical compositions, it’s only now that she decided to release her works through the French record label Akupohone, making iconic songs like Ila Salma (To Salma) and Almadeena Alharima (The Old City) available on platforms beyond SoundCloud.
Raised in El-Kabaria, close to the capital of Tunisia, Badiaa has been familiar with the stage and singing since the age of seven when she would perform as a soloist as part of the local choir.
Singing was part of the family routine Badiaa recalls, “Often, before drifting to sleep, I still remember my father singing Abdel Halim’s Kamel El-Awsaf at bedtime.”
"Artists are not machines and the exchange of energy makes our bodies interact with the music when it’s performed live"
As a teenager, Badiaa discovered the world of rock music through her friend Ghassan who was playing at a local rock band called Black Angels.
Badiaa soon joined the band as the main vocalist and accompanied them during rehearsals and performances in underground spaces.
Rock as a genre was not viewed favourably by the authorities at the time and many of its protagonists were prosecuted. They would play at cafes and universities, and then there was an old church in Bab Elkhadra or the Red Crescent headquarters where communities of musicians would perform unplugged gigs.
“I always wanted to become a singer,” says Badiaa, “but my father, a policeman, would say that I’m doing well at school and that I should pursue a 'serious' job.”
Despite the social preconceptions around musicians, she went on to learn the guitar and other instruments.
During a three-day festival for Fete de la Musique in 2001 Badiaa crossed paths with the legendary founder of Beirut Underground Zeid Hamdan, who was performing as part of Soapkills in Tunisia.
Zeid introduced her to computer software and explained to her how to manipulate music electronically. This propelled her to the realm of electronic music and Badiaa became one of the first female musicians in Tunisia to work with electronic music.
To pursue a career as a musician in Tunisia wasn’t an option, so she decided to move to France, where she studied musicology at Universite Paris 8, after dabbling with English Literature at the Sorbonne.
That period proved to be one of the most progressive periods of her life, as she composed songs like Almadeena Alharima (The Old City) addressing the difficulties of city life or Ila Salma which is based on Fadwa Tuqan’s poem to her dear friend Salma Khadra Aljayyusi.
Recorded in low-fi settings on her computer with rusty microphones Badiaa would put her music out on USBs, which were enthusiastically shared further with friends, creating a following of supporters who encouraged her to release more music.
Badiaa’s rebellious spirit meant that she always had a knack for calling out injustices and oppression around her, and her audacious and critical lyrics were risky to put out under her real name at the time.
She resorted to her Amazigh routes and started releasing the music under the pseudonym Neysatou.
The tides have somewhat changed, and after a residency at Paris’ prestigious Cite des Arts, and working on social justice projects through music with grassroots communities Badiaa decided it was time to gather her compositions and bring them to the world via the now omnipresent streaming platforms.
Her upcoming album Kahru Musiqa brings those previously unreleased pieces together and makes them available to listeners through conventional streaming platforms for the first time.
While Badiaa hasn’t been in favour of monetising her musical creations, and her performances and work always stood firmly rooted in her beliefs for equality and solidarity forged, she says: “I need to move on and put everything together in one place, before it’s lost.”
Her intention is to bring out the album as real and raw as it was first recorded.
The album brings together the musical cycle of Badiaa Bouhrizi’s productions. “I feel that the album is a musical retrospective, that strings together my musical steps over the last 10 years in one album,” says the Tunisian composer.
When asked what her favourite song is, Badiaa says she’s been listening to Capitalist Chant a lot recently.
The song was written almost twenty years ago, but still stands true today. “I had recorded it and done all the mixing myself,” she explains. “There is a special feeling related to the moment of recording which I felt would be lost if I was to record it now.”
Sheikh Imam, one of Badiaa’s musical references had a similar approach to music, as most of the recordings that we have of him today have been done during private sessions conducted with close friends and supporters.
Badiaa decisively believes that live performances are essential for music: “If we want to be organic about music we should go and listen to artists performing live. There is something about intentional listening during a performance that I feel we have been losing recently.”
She further explains that artists are not machines and “the exchange of energy makes our bodies interact with the music when it’s performed live.”
The upcoming album will also feature her song Bladi (My homeland) a song written and performed during Badiaa’s last appearance in Tunisia before the revolution.
“The song is an exploratory song of borders and how we can cross them. It talks about the 'ghosts' and seeds of fear that are constantly driving us to live in anxiety.”
Kahru Musiqa will be coming out in May to close one chapter of Badiaa’s creativity, while opening the door for new musical output.
Her second album coming out this autumn gained the support of the Agha Khan Foundation titled Love Revolt following her receipt of the Agha Khan Foundation’s Award for “Social Inclusion”.
“In North Africa we express our pain through repetition and trance, exhorting the spirits of suffering and agony, through music and movement”
This time her music brings the colours of trip-hop and blues to the fore. The upcoming album was written during a difficult break-up and delves into the concepts of love and revolution.
“I realised how love was so free and abundant during the revolution and that you cannot make a revolution if you’re not in love,” she explains.
Joining forces with some of Tunisia’s most prominent musicians, her sophomore album is more acoustic and presents the work of esteemed Tunisian guitarist Hedi Fahem and one of Tunisia’s greatest jazz drummers Youssef Soltana.
“There is a trancey feel to these compositions,” reveals the artist smiling. “In North Africa we express our pain through repetition and trance, exhorting the spirits of suffering and agony, through music and movement.”
Badiaa Bouhrizi’s works promise a much-needed balm for the soul during our changing times and a soothing melody for the brokenhearted.
Christina Hazboun is a Palestinian writer, researcher and music manager, who focuses on independent, non-mainstream music from South West Asia and North Africa. She is also the founder of the music discovery platform @thesonicagent
Follow her on Instagram: chrishazboun