Emel Mathlouthi was visiting her native Tunis when the international travel ban was enacted preventing her from returning to her home in New York City. So she borrowed a guitar and took her laptop onto the roof of the building she was staying in and proceeded to record the two disc set The Tunis Diaries, for Partisan Records.
While the recording doesn’t contain any new material; disc one sees her reworking some of her most well known songs and disc two is covers of other people’s work; the solo performances are spellbinding and beautiful.
For those familiar with her work the covers will probably be the biggest surprise. For those not familiar with her previously they will provide an accessible introduction to a person who while internationally acclaimed is not be as well known in the English speaking world as she deserves.
With the music stripped down to the bare essentials of what she could create on her own the listener focuses primarily on Emel’s voice. An amazing instrument in its own right, here it is front and centre. Experiencing her voice is something you can only struggle to describe. There don’t seem to any limits to her range as she is equally comfortable climbing the scale to the highest notes as she is descending into the lower octaves.
It doesn’t seem to matter how many times, or how many versions, you hear “Holm” (A Dream), the song that first brought her to international attention when she made it the anthem of the Arab Spring when she performed it during the Tunisian protests, it still packs the emotional wallop it did the first time you heard it. It’s only fitting this is the first song on the recording.
While we might be used to hearing acoustic versions of “Holm” listening to her reworking some of her other work in this manner is something of a revelation. Songs like “Everywhere We Looked Was Burning”, from the album of the same name, and “Princess Melancholy”, from the release Ensen, become even more powerful stripped down to their bare essentials of voice and guitar.
When you think of Emel, would you normally associate her with bands like Nirvana, Deep Purple, Rammstein, Placebo or System of a Down? Grunge, post punk, metal and hard rock are not genres that readily come to mind when thinking back over her body of material.
The second disc begins with Emel’s cover of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”. Now Nirvana, and if I’m honest most grunge and metal are not my cup of tea, her versions of this song, and others, make me want to go back and listen to the originals again to see what I may have missed. She does such a remarkable job in creating with them they take on a new life as she marks them with the indelible stamp of her talent and drive.
Black Sabbath was probably one of the original metal bands and Emel has chosen to cover one of the songs that made them famous, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. She makes the song into a kind of lament on the human condition and it chills you in a way the original never did. The same goes for her versions of Placebo’s “Every You and Every Me” and “Aerials” by System of a Down.
What’s remarkable about these covers is how much Emel has been able to turn them into something new while retaining some of the original intent of the material. However, while I appreciate her versions of these songs, and enjoyed them immensely, the covers of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” stand out head and shoulders above the rest.
On both songs Emel has tapped into the deep emotional well the originals contained, without any effort, and is able to add even deeper layers of meaning. Being familiar with both songs in advance you’d think you’d be prepared for the depth of feeling they generate. However, her versions are almost heartbreaking in their intensity and remind us of just how great both the songs and songwriters were.
The Tunis Diaries is a collection of amazing renditions of an incredibly diverse range of material by one of today’s most exciting performers. That she recorded these song on her own, on a rooftop in Tunis ( you can hear birds singing in the background on “Holm”) makes them even more remarkable. If you’ve never listened to Emel before take this opportunity, you won’t be disappointed. This may just be one of the best albums to come out of the world wide lockdown during the pandemic.