Emel Mathlouthi and Dina El Wedidi on the emotional forces behind their music

Ahead of concerts in Abu Dhabi this weekend, artists tell The National how their latest releases defy expectations

Dina El Wedidi's latest EP was written during the pandemic. Photo: Eslam Tiger
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Arabic folk meets jazz, electronica and even some reggaeton in a pair of concerts at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre on Friday and Saturday.

Egypt’s Dina El Wedidi and Tunisia's Emel Mathlouthi, both doyens of the regional indie scene, will deliver solo concerts with set lists featuring songs often viewed as soundtracks of revolution in their home countries. Simultaneously, their music challenges misconceptions surrounding what it means to be an Arab musician.

Mathlouthi stresses this point to The National as she readies herself for upcoming album MRA.

Out on April 19 and teased by lead single Lose My Mind, a bouncy fusion of reggaeton and hip-hop featuring Iraqi-Swedish rapper Nayomi, the release is both eclectic and thematic.

Doubling down on her adventurous approach in MRA, Mathlouthi traverses styles from pop and hip-hop to folk, drum'n'bass and batucada.

MRA, meaning woman in Arabic, has an all-female cast of collaborators of producers and guest artists hailing from North Africa to North America.

Mathlouthi is not surprised her idiosyncratic sound receives a bigger reception abroad. Her Abu Dhabi gig on Saturday precedes an appearance next week at Womadelaide, the Australian sister event of the UK world music festival Womad.

“In the Arab world, female musicians have always been viewed as coming under the shadow of the great Arabic divas of the past such as Umm Kulthum and Fairouz. They had amazing people writing and composing for them, and they sang the songs beautifully,” Mathlouthi says.

“But I have always craved more freedom in the studio and on stage. I enjoy embracing different rhythms and dance and various kinds of expression. So naturally this was more understood in the western world.”

That said, Mathlouthi found herself initially tackling a different set of perceptions in non-Arab markets.

The title track of her 2012 debut album, Kelmti Horra, introduced her to the world. Meaning My Word is Free and filled with potent declarations – “I am those who are free and never fear / I am the secrets that will never die” – the affecting folk track was viewed as an unofficial anthem of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution of 2010 and 2011.

While proud of the song, Mathlouthi recalls feeling inhibited by western media reports declaring her as “the voice of the revolution”.

“I was being defined through a particular lens and I found that disappointing because I wanted to find freedom through my career.

“As an Arab and African woman, I became more than what they wanted or expected me to be.”

Mathlouthi hopes MRA will vanquish any prevailing sentiments regarding her work.

“My biggest fear is to arrive at a point where I stop being creative,” she says. “So, I do have a sense of urgency to what I do and there is an edge that is always there.”

Songs for all seasons

Performing on Friday, Egyptian musician El Wedidi also found her voice amid the turmoil of home.

She founded her band in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution, and songs such as Khalina Nehlam (Let Us Dream) evoke a love of her country, particularly the history and cultural heritage of Cairo.

As well as being well received at home, the track caught the ear of revered Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil, who went on to mentor El Wedidi as part of a 2012 mentorship programme by Swiss watchmaker Rolex.

“He was so wise and full of great advice,” she says.

“The one [element] that really influenced me was to learn how to listen. He showed me music is as much about learning to play and listen passionately.”

That ability extends to listening to the emotions coming from the passing of time, which is encapsulated in her latest charming EP Khamsa Fosoul, which translates to Five Seasons.

Released last year, the work finds El Wedidi adding new electronic sounds to her acoustic folk template.

“These songs were written during the pandemic, and I guess like most people it made me more introspective. I was inspired more by the personal than society and politics,” she says.

The fact there are no grand declarations in Khamsa Fosoul is the point.

A song like the stirring Elmaged (Glory), with its atmospheric qanun and formidable vocals, speaks of the little things that matter in relationships.

“It's about those people we know and sometimes underestimate how big of a role they play in our lives,” she says.

“We often forget to thank them because we are caught up and stressed in our own lives. I wanted to say thank you to those people who are still and always there for us.”

Dina El Wedidi will perform at NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre on March 1, while Emel Mathlouthi will play the following night. Doors open for both shows at 7.30pm and tickets start at Dh52.50 at nyuad-artscenter.org

Updated: March 02, 2024, 10:11 AM