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.

Courtesy of Sam Koushan/World Leadership Forum
Jaloul Ayed conducted his 'Hannibal de Barca' symphony concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 9. Mr. Ayed has helped renew interest in classical music in Tunisia.
Amine Landoulsi/AP
Tunisians gathered in Tunis to celebrate the revolution's first anniversary last month.

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.

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.

Tunisia became independent in 1956, and since then each successive regime has favored a particular genre. Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, elevated the Andalusian and Turkish-inspired malouf to the status of "national" music. Ben Ali showcased the mezwed, a popular bagpipe-and-drum arrangement with working-class origins.

For Ayed, the theme of a Carthaginian hero who drove his troops over the Alps on elephants to a massive victory against Rome resonates deeply with today's events. "Hannibal left Tunisia at the age of 11 and had a tremendous impact on the history of humankind, and the Tunisian revolution has had a similar impact," he says.

Ayed wants to make sure that high-quality classical music in Tunisia will continue to find support. A former bank director, he's in a unique position to align his two vocations for his country's benefit. "Classical music is badly financed, and finance is badly inspired," he says. So Ayed is soliciting his colleagues in finance and government to sponsor performances and opportunities for musicians.

The status of classical music in Tunisia "can only be improved by strong partnerships between government, the private sector, and international performers," adds Kamel Lazaar, a longtime friend of Ayed's who regularly invites musicians to play concerts in his home in Tunis.

American classical pianist Kimball Gallagher and Tunisian violinist Nidhal Jebali have already forged such a partnership. The night before the "Hannibal" performance, Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Jebali played a Kennedy Center concert featuring several of Ayed's compositions. They had previously played together at a concert funded and hosted by the American Embassy in Tunis.

The two met through Gallagher's work with Cultures in Harmony, an American nonprofit organization that works to connect young musical talent with world-class teachers. Director William Harvey said that while his organization is not political, he has sought out opportunities in the Middle East to "establish the person-to-person connections with the populations in Arab countries."

"What we as musicians can do is travel to Tunisia, perform with local musicians, perform local music, advise and assist where possible, and symbolize through our presence and our musicmaking an unwavering friendship with the people," Mr. Harvey says.

Harvey encouraged Jebali, the violinist, to apply for college music scholarships in the United States. Today Jebali is in his third year of study at Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, and is recognized as one of the most promising young Tunisian musicians. He played two original compositions at his Kennedy Center debut, one inspired by a traditional Tunisian melody.

Speaking after the performance, Gallagher expressed optimism about the future of Tunisian classical music. "Good composition like this demonstrates an advanced level of musical understanding," he said. "And to have Tunisian com-posers on the international stage shows that their musical voice is getting louder, just as the country is now gaining its political voice."

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.

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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