Exercise and chain smoking: an evening with Ghalia Benali

Exercise and chain smoking: an evening with Ghalia Benali
Profile: The Tunisian singer opens up about singing, acting, Tunisia, politics and the most important things in life.
6 min read
10 February, 2015
Benali on stage: Abandon your inhibitions (Rima Marrouch)

A Ghalia Benali concert is almost like exercise. The chain-smoking (red Galoises) singer starts slowly, warming the audience up and gradually picks up the pace. The audience is carried along by a voice that mixes sweetness with a kind of smoky harshness.

She is also an accomplished dancer. Benali, 46, combines elements of Arab belly dancing with Spanish flamenco and throws in what seems like Indian-inspired moves. She


Wild Harrisa (2001): Benali’s interpretations of traditional songs from Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq.

Romeo and Leila (2007): An album partly inspired by Benali’s journey back from Tunisia to Belgium.

Al Palna (2009): Sufi texts provide the lyrics, Indian-inspired music the backbone.

Ghalia Benali sings Um Kalthoum [sic] (2010): A major inspiration, “I have been listening to Um Kolthoum since I was four. The songs I chose [for this album] might not be the best-known but these are some of my favourites.”

appears absolutely comfortable in her own skin, and less than fifteen minutes into a September London concert, many in the audience abandon their own inhibitions, dancing frantically along with her.

Benali loves her audience and her audience loves her back.

She was born in Belgium to Tunisian parents. She was three when her parents decided to move back to Tunisia, to a small town close to the Gulf of Qabes–Matmata. As a girl growing up in a conservative society, life revolved around the home. “We would do errands around the house: cleaning, embroidering, cooking, telling stories with grandma. And there was always singing. That was our life. It was a normal thing to do. Or my mother would say: ‘Yallah dance!’ We would play with music,’’ Benali recalls.

She says she probably wouldn't have become a singer if she had stayed in Tunisia. But at the age of 19, she moved back to Belgium to study graphic design. There, she quickly felt homesick. “I cooked, I did embroidery and all the things that I would do when I was little. Things that were my life. I sang and it all came out.” But despite the nostalgia, she felt at ease in Belgium. “When I went there I didn’t feel I was in exile. I think when you feel love and when you feel you want to communicate with people they feel that and return the same feelings.”

Coincidence ensured Benali became a singer. She enjoys an obvious bond with all the musicians who accompany her. But one bond is almost intuitive, that with Moufadhel Adhoun, an oud player. Benali and Andhoun met more than twenty years ago and have worked together since on many projects. 

"Shortly after Ghalia arrived to Brussels friends began telling me: 'There is this Tunisian girl. She has a great voice you need to meet her'," recalls Adhoun.

He remembers that first meeting as very casual. "I asked her: 'Are you Ghalia Benali? Do you sing?' And she said yes, so we started improvising. I was playing oud and Ghalia was singing. We finished around 3 in the morning. I told her: 'I will put together a band and you will sing.' She smiled and said 'No, no. I'm not a singer. I just sing for fun'." Even today when he tells that story he exudes a tangible sense of disbelief that Benali could actually say no.

A mother of two – a son, 14, and a daughter, nine – Benali lives in Brussels, but divides her time between Tunisia and Belgium. And though she sees herself as primarily an artist and disclaims knowledge of politics, she was committed to voting in Tunisia's elections.

"I don’t understand politics. What I do understand is that people are sad. That many have died, many became orphans, many lost loved ones. This is who I care about and it doesn’t matter if it is in Tunisia, Syria or Palestine,” she says.

According to Benali, the Arab Spring revolution is still taking place now. "Many people are saying: 'oh we were better before the revolution'. I say no. The uprising made us realize that we have a voice and we can express things. There is a new spirit. Even if there is frustration and many difficult issues, there are things that are changing. We don’t see it now because the situation is difficult. The revolution is when we start working. Yes, there was an uprising, there was an anger. But now the revolution starts, when we start working. When we build. Stone after stone."

Despite her distrust of politics, she thinks it is important to vote in the upcoming elections. "I believe we have to take part in the elections no matter what. Sadly we are starting to vote not for the candidate we agree with but we are often voting against …. [Still] I think our presence in the elections is important so that the candidate who wins knows that the people are present and they are following what is happening."

And for someone who disavows politics, there is also a distinctly political angle to her next project, a role in the film Dieu protégé ma fille (God protect my daughter) by young Tunisian filmmaker Leila Abouzeid. Benali plays one of the two main characters, the mother of a rebellious young singer who performs songs against the previous regime.

The filming schedule has added pressure to her workload but she sees no conflict between singing and acting.

"For me it is all about expression. I sing, I draw, I act," she says. She is constantly on the move and the goal is the journey itself, she says, a Gypsy lifestyle. "Gypsies are constantly on the move, constantly travelling but they never think about reaching a destination. They reach a place, rest a bit and they start the journey again because that is their nature."

She is also a hyper-modern recording artist. She answers a question about her current recording label with a laugh. "YouTube and Soundcloud. I don't want people to store my music. I want them to share it."

Her fifth album, Al-Mawsoul, was recorded 2 years ago but still hasn't been released. “Maybe the time doesn’t allow recorded albums anymore, at least in Europe,’’ she says.


Al-Mawsoul contains some of her own lyrics but also songs that young writers from Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere wrote. Most of it is post-Arab Spring. She works with both established poets and musicians as well as young writers from across the region. Earlier this year, she recorded a song, ‘’I am that powerful wind ‘’ () written by the Syrian filmmaker and writer, Reem Ghazzi, specifically for her.

Benali’s aspires to establish a "Contemporary Arab Music" label. She sees a gap in the market but is also keen to avoid putting Arab artists into the 'World Music' label. "The world is a big place. We are not the world."

In the meantime, she makes no bones about her role as an artist. "I always say that music is the spirit and that singing is the spirit of life, the beauty of life. What can get you out of depression and sadness? Beauty. Love. When there is love we forget everything, we forget the tiredness, we have energy."