Mawazine sessions: Lotfi Bouchnak on being a source of inspiration for emerging Arab talent

Lotfi Bouchnak is viewed as a legend in the Arab entertainment industry, sometimes referred to as Tunisia’s Pavarotti.

A handout photo of Lotfi Bouchnak in Mawazine 2017 (Photo by Youness Hamiddine)
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Ramadan TV is not just about watching A-list actors headlining anticipated drama series.

Arab pop stars have also got into the act by performing theme songs for plenty of flagship shows.

Pop queen Nancy Ajram sang the opening song for the 2015 drama Halat Eshk, for example. That same year, you could not avoid Marwan Khoury's smooth voice – the Lebanese crooner was enlisted to sing on four TV series, including the popular Cello.

The previous year, Elissa's soulful take on the thrilling series Law was so popular the diva wasted no time in releasing an extended version as a single.

This year, Tunisian singer Lotfi Bouchnak joined the club with his opening number for Egyptian drama Khoyout Al Shams, which is being screened on Al Sawt Al Araby.

He is viewed as a legend in the Arab entertainment industry, referred to as Tunisia’s Pavarotti, so it seems strange for such an elder statesman – who through a five-decade career has established himself as one of leading purveyors of the classic Arabic folk style called tarab – to be involved in such a commercially driven enterprise.

“Well, I didn’t do it for the money,” he says from the recently concluded Mawazine Festival in Morocco.

“I recorded that song without any remuneration. It seemed like a good project – I really wanted to support the young people who prepared the series and I wanted it to maintain its high standards.”

The revelation is not surprising. The 65-year-old has always been a source of inspiration and advice to generations of emerging Arabic talent.

In 2014 he spent a fair amount of time in the UAE as the judge of Munshid Al Sharjah – an Arab Idol-esque television talent quest that focuses on the Islamic spiritual music called nasheeds.

Bouchnak, known for popular hits Leilah and Anna Araby, says he lends his name to aspirational projects to shift the spotlight from established names – and bristles at suggestions that the Arabic entertainment industry is stuck in a creative rut.

“Not true,” he says. “I do not think the Arab world lacks innovators, but the bridge that links the artist to the consumer and the audience is the media. The media has a great responsibility in shining a light on these new names. Hopefully, every artist gets due credit and chances to be a poet, composer, painter, dancer or sculptor. Our identity resides in our culture. We need to spread our message and support our economy and culture.”

It is not only the artistic heritage of the Arab world that Bouchnak is defending, but through constant touring in the region, he also aims to preserve his homeland’s folk tradition, called malouf.

Dating back to the 9th century, the genre is said to be linked to the Iraqi poet and composer Ziryab, who brought his fusion of Andalusian music and Arabic poetry during a decade-long stay (813 to 822) in Ifriqiya – a land that comprised modern-day Tunisia and western and eastern Libya.

Performed in small orchestras – featuring violins, drums, sitars and flutes, with lyrics derived from qassidahs (classical Arabic poetry) – malouf is viewed as the modern reminder of Muslim Andalusia’s rich culture.

With traditional malouf largely relegated to official ceremonies and weddings in Tunisia, Bouchnak is open to the slightly controversial notion of modernising certain elements to appeal to younger generations.

One suggestion he offers is to replace the classical lyricism that speaks of former glories with more timely subject matter.

“Concerning the malouf, it is a sea from which we have learnt and it represents our identity,” he says. “But we should address the youth in a language that reflects them and the reality of their situation. The old lyrics are our history and we respect that and learn from them, but history should not stop at this heritage. We should keep advancing.”

Reaching out to the new generation is something that clearly motivates Bouchnak. He laments the disconnect between young Arab audiences and the generations that came before them.

He puts it down to a lack of will – from governmental cultural authorities right down to record companies and broadcasters.

“I honestly believe that we Arabs have killed the master in all areas,” he says.

“Even in journalism, no one is willing to learn from a journalist with 50 years of experience under his belt. The student should knock at the master’s door, not vice versa.

“Second, the cultural policy throughout the Arab world should be reconsidered: how we plan to build a new generation based on our principles and culture in poetry and music.

“We Arabs only have our culture left. What we see on Arab channels – more than 2,000 channels that cost billions of dollars – do they reflect us, our past or our present? Rarely, I say. How many cultural channels are found in the Arab world?”

When considering his own legacy, which includes being hailed as one Tunisia’s leading cultural ambassadors, Bouchnak says he would like to be remembered as an artist motivated by the right intentions.

“I thank God that I am sincere,” he says.

“We are passing in this life. I like to leave a trace and a good image.

“What will you leave in the mind of your audience that has come to see you? When I go on stage, it is like my first performance.”

The 2017 Mawazine sessions concludes next week with an interview with Syrian folk singer Badr Rami