After the revolution, arts bloom in Tunisia
As Tunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' turns one, musicians find new venues, funds, and teachers -- along with official support.
If Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" had been a feature film, Jaloul Ayed might have composed the soundtrack. The renowned classical composer's symphony "Hannibal de Barca" – performed last month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on the first anniversary of the revolution – was a highlight of an inspired year for Tunisian culture and an illustration of how political revolution can usher in artistic changes.Skip to next paragraph
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With increased freedom of expression, every art form in the North African country has seen a profusion of new creativity, from contemporary art and theater to popular music and rap. There's even been a small but concerted effort to promote Western classical music.
Even before the January 2011 uprising, non-profits and visiting performers were seen as resources and opportunities for young Tunisian classical musicians. But now, interim government officials and financiers are reinvigorating support for national music institutions.
Under deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's orchestra and conservatories resorted to foreign collaborations to sustain much of their classical music programming, says Saifallah Ben Abderrazak, the director of Tunisia's Higher Institute of Music. The Ben Ali regime's only attempt to encourage Western-style performing arts – initiating a state-funded "City of Culture" complex in 2002 – didn't garner support from Tunisian artists and was quickly mired in corruption.
"I think Ben Ali did not know enough about Western art music to appreciate its true value and encourage it," Mr. Ben Abderrazak says.
Today, the euphoria surrounding the 2011 revolution is fading. Islamist parties gained considerable power in Tunisia's elections last October, and many cultural organizations fear another clampdown on creativity. Yet Ben Abderrazak doesn't expect the new government to hinder the growth of the classical music scene.
"One of the founding members of Al Nahda [Tunisia's majority Islamist political party], Abdelfattah Mourou, even sang an operatic aria in German on television," he says.
Ben Abderrazak is also greatly encouraged by the work of Mr. Ayed, the classical composer who served as Tunisia's interim finance minister after the revolution. "He's undertaken a number of projects with the Ministry of Culture, even though he was finance minister, to improve and develop classical music in Tunisia, to restructure and improve working conditions for musicians, and to correct the shortcomings of the orchestra," Ben Abderrazak says.
Ayed recently brought international attention to this cause with the Kennedy Center concert, and says, "I believe that classical music is a universal language and one that we have to perform, particularly now while we have a good story to tell and the whole world is watching us."
Western classical music has had a presence in Tunisia ever since Italian expatriates built the first opera house in Tunis in the 1820s. Under the ensuing French protectorate, Tunis established a philharmonic orchestra and Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart were introduced into the music schools. Over time, conservatory graduates were expected to be proficient in both Arab and Western classical music.