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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.

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Gallagher, who has trained, mentored, and performed with aspiring Tunisian musicians since 2006, says that new compositions are crucial to a developing classical music scene, but that Tunisian conservatories don't have composition teachers. "So if you're a young musician and you want to compose in the Western classical tradition, you've got to teach yourself," he says, noting that Ayed was self-taught.

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Last summer, Gallagher raised funds to bring two young Tunisian musicians to the US for advanced training. Using Web videoconferencing software, he's also started connecting students to American instructors. For instance, 19-year-old pianist Souhayl Guesmi studies classical composition via Skype with Simon Fink, a professor at Missouri Western State University. The Arab Spring inspired Mr. Guesmi – as it has many Arab artists – and his emotions about what he experienced during the upheaval come through in his original works.

"You can feel the ups and downs, which describe perfectly my feelings through what happened during the revolution," he says, commenting on his 2011 composition "Beatitude No. 3."

Professor Fink believes Guesmi has serious talent and the gravitas to create significant pieces for piano. "On a couple of different levels, his works are greatly inspired by Chopin," Fink says.

Guesmi is not alone in evoking Chopin in the context of the Arab Spring. Chopin composed his "Revolutionary Étude" in 1831 after learning the Russian Army had invaded his native Poland, making him an appropriate muse for budding Tunisian composers.

The Chopin-Tunisia connection was literally on display at a December 2011 event at the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music in Sidi Bou Said, a seaside village outside Tunis that's painted white and blue. Poland's ambassador to Tunisia, Krzysztof Olendzki, presided over an installation of a bronze Chopin bust in the music center's garden, before award-winning young pianists launched into a performance of Chopin's music.

"The bust of the great revolutionary musician represents our way of paying tribute to the Tunisian people who showed courage and bravery and succeeded in this revolution," Mr. Olendzki told the audience after unveiling the sculpture.

The event celebrated an initiative supported by the Polish embassy and the Atlas Foundation, which since 2009 has brought talented young musicians of all socioeconomic backgrounds to a summer music camp in a picturesque rural Tunisian village, Beni M'tir.

For these students, the camp is a rare chance to learn from international artists in residence and play the high-quality instruments at the facility.

In keeping with Ayed's vision, Atlas Foundation director Salah Hannachi plans to expand the music camp into a world-class destination that will attract Tunisian, European, and American classical music fans and spur economic development in the region.

"We have popular jazz and world music festivals here in Tabarka and Carthage," Mr. Hannachi says. "But what we want to create eventually is a sort of Aspen Classical Music Festival in Tunisia."


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