A DIVERSE double bill concert celebrating music without frontiers brought a Sydney Festival audience to its feet in the formal setting of the City Recital Hall Angel Place.
Top of the bill was Tunisian star Emel Mathlouthi, whose song Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free) became an anthem for the Arab Spring activists seven years ago, while the opening half featured two respected musicians, both with strong ties to Iraq but from different cultural traditions in oud master Rahim Alhaj and Egyptian born cellist and former conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, Karim Wasfi.
Mathlouthi left Tunisia for Paris in 2008 when her songs were banned by the repressive regime of Ben Ali, whose overthrow sparked the uprising which made her face and voice internationally known. More recently she has been living in New York and her music, which was always pushed the boundaries from its start as acoustic-based protest songs, has taken on a new direction, incorporating cinematic electronica, hip-hop and beat influences.
Teaming up with keyboard wizard Pier Luigi Salami and drummer Shawn Crowder, Mathlouthi put on a compelling show featuring shrewd use of lighting, charismatic dance moves and her sublime voice — comparisons with Bjork and Sinead O’Connor come easily to mind.
It started in darkness with ominous low synthetiser chords as she came out on stage, barefoot and dressed in a black kimono with a striking floral pattern, to put her unique spin on Jeff Buckley’s Falling, and ended 80 minutes later with a moving tribute Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan who died in London last week.
In between she gave us Kaddesh, an insistent and passionate tune which builds to a dizzying climax, and Princess Melancholy — hints of Enya and Clannad here — and the thunderous beat of Ensen Dhaif, her most popular song from her new album, which features a delicate middle section before the insistent Arabic time signature returns. People we see every day but whose eyes we don’t ever meet.
Songs were dedicated to refugees, the children caught up in war and violence and the homeless — “those people we see every day but whose eyes we don’t ever meet”.
But before we got to the theatre and raw emotion of Mathlouthi’s performance the houselights were up for the set by Alhaj and Wasfi. Oud and cello wove together irresistibly in the opening number.
Its three short movements represented Iraq before the arrival of Isis, with the two players answering each other, then a middle movement where Alhaj’s wordless voice evoked the pain and horror of the Isis occupation, and finally a hopeful finale with the oud setting up a skipping rhythm for the cello to weave over.
Both played a solo, Alhaj’s a beautifully nuanced song of hope for the Iraqi soldiers returning from war, and Wasfi with his searing and moving Baghdad Mourning, which he wrote and performed on the car-bombed streets of Baghdad, showing people that there can be beauty amid the violence and horror.
It reminded this listener of Benjamin Britten’s suites composed for the great Russian cellist Rostropovich.
EMEL MATHLOUTHI – FULL PERFORMANCE (LIVE ON KEXP)
The night ended with Mathlouthi’s moving rendition of O’Riordan’s War Child, a singer who inspired her and helped her to Live up to those closing lines of Kelmti Horra: “I am all the free people of the world put together, I am like a bullet”.