Badiaa Bouhrizi: Articulating the Alternative We Seek

A first-hand account of coming across the music of Tunisian artist Badiaa Bouhrizi.

Sometime in mid-2011 I was, uncharacteristically, in my kitchen, doing the dishes or some other menial chore. I had the television on outside in the living room, tuned into one of the political talk shows that were de rigueur viewing at the time.

Despite it being a time of upheaval punctuated by far more losses than victories – though that would be solidified a whole lot more in the following months – at night we would tune into the talking heads because, at least back then, there was something to talk about.

There were the usual diatribes, and sometimes at the end of some shows, there was music. Usually in some way related to events, or inspired by them, or in turn trying to inspire them. Generally not judged on its musical merit, but rather an attempt at an instantaneous articulation of the social and political landscape. As such it was more often than not an addendum at the end of such a show. Most of the time.

I wasn’t even half listening, barely aware of voices drifting somewhere in the background. Then, like some gauche epiphany of biblically hyperbolic proportion I usually would be too reticent to publicly profess, I heard a voice. Not just any voice, one that pierced through all that static noise and seemed to chide us on our silliness and pettiness, trying to ennoble us with things far greater.

My jaw half-dropped (yes it actually did) and for a split second I was rooted in place. I managed to walk out and was met by similar looks of amazement on the faces of all those assembled in my living room. “Is this coming from Yousri Fouda?” I turned to the TV and there was a slight figure carrying a guitar and a passing resemblance to Zadie Smith. Next to her was an amiable Swiss playing a rounded percussive instrument I had never seen before. He would later explain the “Hang” to a comically astonished Fouda.

We all watched transfixed. Her name was Badiaa Bouhrizi; she was Tunisian, which at the time meant a drunken kinship between her homeland and ours. She played a song that held a repeated refrain of the word ‘freedom’, about her incarcerated brother, a rapper in his own right. On that particular song Bouhrizi conveyed the physical and mental confines of the prison cell but the coup de grace was the musical bridge about family prison visits.

People that borrow, people who beg, and people too proud to do either. People no longer people.

People are stripped of their humanity in this most dislocating of situations. And yet it ends on a plaintive note of hope, as things often do in Bouhrizi’s ouvre.

All that you love today was yesterday but a dream. Don’t you forget.

I was besotted. She was to perform a few days later in concert. I went of course. It was the same. She had an easy rapport with the audience and would often intersperse the songs with humorous commentaries on similar themes found in her music. She covered themes of freedom and liberty in a political and poignant manner, never contrived or shrill. And still that voice that cut through all sorts of shit.

The virtuoso Swiss percussionist (David Kuckhermann) was a perfect foil. It was a stripped back affair that meshed well, truly a high point of a turbulent summer. Years later I would leave the grind of reporting daily politics for a more (personally) fruitful pursuit of discovering music and other forms of audio. I stopped writing for a long time; by that point I found it a struggle. Not what others wrote by any means. That I found imperative. It was my own that I felt was pointless. But Badiaa Bouhrizi is worth writing about. More than that, she’s worth listening to.

If it isn’t the strength of voice and the original work, sometimes garnished with lyrics by celebrated Arabic poets, it’s the inflections of reggae that pepper her music and, par exemple, culminate in an utterly sublime cover of Bob Marley’s “War”, the lyrics translated in classical Arabic with added references to turmoil in Arab countries, sung in her own inimitable vocal style.

Bouhrizi was to play again in Cairo in June of last year. This time I wasn’t in attendance. My loss for a myriad of reasons but maybe I wasn’t yet particularly prepared for the sharpest, and most beautiful, of reminders from that particular epoch.

I am now.

Hear Badiaa Bouhrizi on Dandin.

 

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