“Heyma”, or “Wanderings” in English, is an album born of the collaboration between a group of Tunisian friends, who have spent their lives travelling between several cultures: Leïla El Mekki, a woman poet whose simple words are both moving and profound; Skander Guetari, a composer whose tunes, now languid, now mischievous, delight the ear; and Abir Nasraoui, whose voice exudes passion and communicates emotion beyond all physical and symbolic frontiers. Eleven tracks, some of them impish and others more somber in tone, take the listener on a journey through a generous musical universe, created by more than a dozen musicians from East and West.
1 – Dhâg khâtrî/Languor – 04’09
2 – Sâyes/Gently – 03’27
3 – Ethnâya wâsscâ/The paths seem easy – 04’12
4 – Yâ nâr/Ardour – 05’01
5 – Lâ tadkhulî-l-bahr/Do not set out to sea – 03’38
6 – Farkh el hamem/O young pigeon – 04’06
7 – Khâfeg/Beating heart – 03’38
8 – Yâ cayn/O Eyes – 06’51
9 – El ghorba/Nostalgia – 04’17
10 – Zmân el wâguef/The era of the victor – 05’12
11 – Heyma/Wanderings – 04’11
Interpreters and instruments
Abir Nasraoui (singing, direction)
Ahmed Jebali (oud, percussion, choir)
Birgit Yew (cello)
Hsin ben Miloud (flute)
Imed Labidi (percussion)
Iyadh Labbene (violin, warqa, choir)
Mohamed Abdel Kader Haj Kacem (tabla)
Olivier Cahours (guitar)
Philippe Foch (percussion)
Skander Guetari (choir)
Thierry Colson (contrebass)
Abir, Emna, Fairouz, Samah, Samira, Syrine (choir)
My first real meeting with Abir Nasraoui took place when this album was still at the preparatory stage. I knew her by name and had listened to one or two of her songs, nothing more. A combination of circumstance and common acquaintance had allowed us to meet on several occasions, but always fleetingly, with just enough time to exchange polite remarks. And then we met, purely by chance, at a restaurant in the 10th arrondissement on a spring evening in Paris. Of course, it’s impossible to cover an entire life in one evening, but you can at least capture the essence. In Abir’s case, it may be summed up in one word: passion.
It was her passion for music that first brought her from Tunis to Paris. Steeped in Oriental music and nourished throughout her training by the great classics of Arab music, Abir enjoyed a sufficiently solid artistic base on her arrival in Paris several years ago to allow herself to open up to world music without it affecting her voice. While she does not hesitate to refer to the effect that Paris and its cultural melting pot have had on her, or to her experience of radio broadcasting that she continues to this day at Monte-Carlo Doualiya, the artist knows, nevertheless, how to preserve her uniquely Tunisian intonation that neither drums nor guitar chords can alter.
It then took all the musical experience of Skander Guetari, who had been living in Paris for years, and a great rapport between the two artists to bring about this improbable mixture, a marriage of sounds and rhythms drawn from many different sources. It seems useless to try and pigeon-hole this album, it defies definition, drawing inspiration as much from the shores of the Mediterranean as from far-off lands, harmoniously combining the “daf” and its Oriental sounds with the Indian tabla, accompanied by reggae rhythms or even, quite simply, Tunisian rhythms. There is however a common link: the words of Leïla El Mekki resonate through a range of texts that refer back to popular poetry and are performed by Abir Nasraoui whose voice displays all the variations in tone. We may think we know the over-familiar themes of separation, exile and popular wisdom expressed in metaphoric language reminiscent of traditional sayings. However, let there be no mistake: while the meeting between these two women artists happened purely by chance, the poetry of Leïla El Mekki is imbued with a rare feminine sensibility that the singer explores throughout her vocal range; passion is not the sister of reticence.
It is thanks to the shared sensibility of this trio that this opus has come into being. One word that will doubtless crop up in conversation with Abir when we discuss this in greater detail will be emotion. It is this emotion, charged with authenticity, which will most certainly also appeal to less conformist tastes.
Sarra Grira, journalist
Abir Nasraoui, “Heyma” (Wanderings) is your first album. Would you like to tell us something of the circumstances in which this project came about?
The idea for this album goes back to 2004. I met the composer Skander Guetari purely by chance. He had heard about me and wanted to work with me on a jazz-pop style of project. We started talking, we got carried away and the original subject was somehow pushed to one side. It must be said that I had expressed a wish to break free of the mould of traditional Arab music, which had shaped me up until that time. As far as Skander was concerned, he had already released a first album called “Alwan” (Colours). As the title suggests, the album had been influenced by colours collected from all over the world and combined a broad range of musical tones. The seeds of a hybrid project are already evident from the mix of sounds and the adaptation of the Arabic language to western musical scales. Our meeting encouraged him to move towards something more “eastern”, something that brought him closer to my own musical universe. Our musical collaboration began with “Al Ghorba” (Exile), which was originally a traditional Tunisian song. I sang it to him on a recorded message on his mobile phone and told him I’d like to do a cover version of the song with a more innovative approach. He recorded it and suggested two arrangements: the first had a fairly traditional Tunisian feel to it; the second, on the contrary, treated the piece in a completely new way. I was instinctively drawn towards the first version, but I forced myself to try the second. I was aware it was necessary to make such a decision to give concrete form to my desire for innovation.
Precisely. Those who know your work are used to hearing you perform in a more classical style. What place have you kept for your original training?
It’s true that, to start with, I sang the “tarab” (literally, musical ecstasy and thus, the expression used to refer to classical Arab music, Ed.) mainly from the repertoire of Oum Kalthoum, but also Asmahan, Abdelwahab, Salah Abdelhay, and many others. As a result, I was afraid of falling into the trap of uniformity and I began to fear the public’s reaction if I ever decided to try a different genre. I then realized that it was necessary to branch out before the trap closed in on me for good. I adore the classical style and I feel a constant need to return to it. It’s a way of going back to my roots, because it must be said, I grew up with these tunes. When I was very small, my father introduced me to music by playing me the recordings of Oum Kalthoum and Abdelwahab. His tastes really influenced me. And then, my training and surroundings nourished my musical knowledge. In my family, everyone sings. I surprised everyone at the age of eight by performing some of Oum Kalthoum’s songs, such as “Habîbî Yessced Aw’âtû” (My beloved! May he be happy). My grandmother, to whom I pay tribute in this album, also had a very beautiful voice. When we were small, we’d listen to her singing. “Farkh El Hamem” (O, young pigeon), which appears on this album, was the first song she taught us. That tune has stayed with me since then. I had a very fusional relationship with my grandmother, and unfortunately, I only realized just how close we had been, when she died shortly after I arrived in Paris, without my having the opportunity to say goodbye. I was deeply affected by her death. I was very moved when I sang that song in public for the first time in 2005, onstage at the Institut du monde arabe (the Arab World Institute in Paris). I had the feeling that her voice continued to live on through mine, so I insisted that the track should appear on the CD. I also felt that as this song is part of the folklore of my native region, it fits in perfectly with the spirit of the album.
There was one decisive meeting during this project and that was with Leïla El Mekki who wrote the lyrics of the CD. How did this female duo come about?
I arrived in Paris on October, 5th 2001. On the very day I left, I went to say goodbye to a dear friend, the photographer Habib Hmima. We’ve been working together for a long time, as he’s done all my photographs since 1994, which is when I first appeared onstage. I went to his place and that’s where I met the poet, Leïla El Mekki. She gave me her collection and I took it away with me without reading it. It was only a few months later, once I’d settled in Paris, that I came across it again. The first poem that caught my attention was “Ed’dhûb eshshamcâ” (The candle burns), that we later called “Yâ nâr” (Ardour) on the album. The sensitivity of this woman and her suffering touched me deeply… We’re often more sensitive to a woman’s pain. It’s as if a woman can feel things more intensely than a man or as if she knows better how to express her suffering; or perhaps, it was simply because I’m a woman too and I could identify with her texts.
So I got in touch with Skander again and asked him if the text moved him in the same way. He took it and began working on it. In the meantime, I discovered other texts by Leïla that reminded me more and more of my native region (Kasserine, a small town in the west of Tunisia, Ed.). In fact, the dialect in which she writes her poems is the same dialect that my grandmother spoke, may she rest in peace, as well as all my forefathers. For even if my family and I left the region, when I was still very young, to go and live in Tunis, I still have a great deal of affection for the language. Of course, all these factors influenced the way in which I read the works of Leïla El Mekki.
Her poetry is beautiful and profound and it gave me the wish to write for myself. The work on the album gave me quite a few ideas that I jotted down as they appeared. For even if the feelings of others are very deep and we respond passionately to them, it is unquestionable that at a certain moment we’ll feel the need to describe our own experiences in our own words. The song, “Heyma”, which appears on this album, is a case in point. I wrote the words as a kind of preparation for a future project of which I am to be the sole author. It’s quite justified to want to sing about your own emotions in your own words and not just those of others. You might say that this experience changed me from being a singer to being a writer-performer.
How did you find the recording process?
Skander finished composing the first verse of the song I mentioned very quickly and then he played it back to me. I was moved to tears. I don’t know why, but Skander found it hard to finish the rest of the poem. So he put the text aside to wait for artistic inspiration and turned to the other poems in the collection. As the work progressed, he contacted me to tell me that he’d written the musical setting for this text, or that text. Of course, we’d agreed together on a certain number of poems to be set to music, but he also made some suggestions of his own, like “Dhâg Khâtrî” (Languor), for example.
As the work went on and certain pieces that had been composed such as Sâyes (Gently) were successful, I called Habib Hmima and asked him for Leïla El Mekki’s contact details. She was delighted! She still remembered me and was even happier when she learned that we both come from the same area. My first contact with her was very relaxed and pleasant. I found her to be a woman of great subtlety, who took a malicious pleasure in playing with words. It was then she told me that she’d just brought out a new collection of poetry. Fortunately, Skander was in Tunis at that time and so he brought it back for me. The title of the collection, which I found very revealing, was “Jâwabet el-ujâc” (Responses to pain).
When I began recording I was still a student. What with my university courses and the job I was doing on the side to make ends meet, I had to juggle with my timetable and impose a very strict schedule on myself to satisfy my passion.
Our first recording sessions almost felt like a workshop: Skander on the guitar and me with my voice and that was all. We began by setting the text to music, an exercise I was used to doing and that I was qualified to do, not only thanks to my literary training and my poetic sensibility, but also and especially because I’d studied adapting metrics to music as part of my university education. Skander played the game as far as the adaptation was concerned. Our collaboration was really marvellous and we developed a real rapport. The fact that you can hear us laughing our heads off on the demos is living proof!
Little by little, we began to play the recordings to those close to us and I began performing in public. Things happened in stages because Skander hadn’t yet finished setting up his recording studio. At that time, it was still a garage with a microphone and a sound card! (laughter). A series of concerts at the Espace L’Harmattan, at the Institut du monde arabe, at the Scène Bastille and at the Palais Al Abdellia during the Carthage International Festival allowed us to put the finishing touches to the pieces as far as tempo, key signatures and instrumentation were concerned. Having contact with the public gave us clues as to how to achieve this and pushed us in the right direction as to the necessary alterations.
“Heyma” has the distinctive characteristic of being a very hybrid opus. Did your experience of working for the radio, with greater access to world music, influence you as a singer? And did Paris affect you?
Yes and no. When I joined the team at Radio Monte-Carlo Doualiya, we’d already made a lot of headway on the album. But this experience and the broadening of my horizons haven’t only influenced me as an artist. On a personal level, it allowed me to discover many artists whom I went to see in concert and who really moved me. Having daily contact with them, which was an indispensable part of the broadcast I presented, also contributed a great deal. And there was also the RFI record library, to which we had access and which is very extensive. I acknowledge the added wealth of experience this brought me. Personally, I’ve always been very sensitive to emotion. There are some voices that simply carry me away. Examples would be Billie Holiday, Chavela Vargas, Estrella Morente, Amália Rodrigues, the great Tango voices – a form of music that bears the mark of great suffering – without forgetting fado and flamenco, which we Arabs are very close to in terms of sensibility and emotion; this is also true of some Latin-American music, which is made up of diverse influences and mixes. For a long time in Tunisia, as in other Arab countries, musical choice was generally limited to light music and classical music (the Arabo-Andalusian malouf or classical Oriental). It’s only now that we’re beginning to open up to other musical colours. It wasn’t so very long ago that those who wanted to experiment with genres such as jazz were almost ignored and couldn’t find an audience capable of understanding their music. It’s obvious that I was very lucky to be able to come and live in Paris. It changed my life, but it also changed the way I perceived my life and my music. I no longer see things from just one perspective. I’ve broadened my horizons quite perceptibly and my daily life is the richer for it.
What is the target audience you hope to reach with this album?
My audience is international (laughter) and I’ve noticed this at my concerts where several nationalities are present, in the same way that musicians of various nationalities have performed for this album.
In any case, I’m not trying to reach just a single community, whether it’s Tunisian, North African or Arab. I’d like to be able to reach an international audience, because music and feelings are without borders.
As I myself like listening to Pakistani performers or flamenco singers, who carry me away with the intensity of their singing, I like to think that someone else, without even understanding what I’m saying in my songs, can still feel all the emotion I’m trying to convey in my voice. The language of the heart can always go beyond any kind of barrier…
Translation Translated by Reena Khandpur
1- Dhâg khâtrî/Languor – 04’09
Suffocating under the weight of melancholy
To my eyes, everything seems upside down
In vain I try to still my heart
It was overflowing with love
That ran like blood through my veins
In vain I try to still my heart
It will not obey
And even the gold has rusted on my breast
I begged his saints and mine to come to my aid
When I found myself off course
In vain I try to force my heart to forget
It will not listen
I summoned up reason but my soul still suffered
From the opposing winds that swept me ceaselessly back to shore
Poor vessel that I am, without a sailor, far from my beloved!
2- Sâyes/Gently – 03’27
You who bring suffering upon women
Stop your cruelty
Love is a subtle art and makes demands
A free man will hardly become a serf
Nothing is eternal
And he who has the upper hand may one day know defeat
If you believe that Fate will never find you
You are mistaken
The Pharaohs were not immortal
And their power was fleeting
As was the glory of the Ottomans
The Pyramids are merely the tombs of those who built them.
3- Ethnâya wâsscâ/The paths seem easy – 04’12
The paths seem easy and accessible
Young girl, there is no hurry
Do not be tempted by the brightness of day
Do not be charmed by the spring flowers
The roads to temptation are many and varied
Do not dress the wounds of a noble heart with soft words
If you betray it without appreciating its true value
The paths seem easy and broad
And you, mad child, you are running breathless in pursuit of the wind
But what do you hope to catch?
4- Yâ nâr/Ardour – 05’01
Ardour that burns in the depths of my being
It’s his fault, the man who left, like the summer, never to return
He left me, sick and bedridden
Weeping from an incurable illness
Weeping tears that never cease
And I have grown thin and melted away like a candle
My radiance has been tarnished and my inner light put out
Since the veins of his love have taken root in my breast
Since the bonds of affection have bound my being
Ardour that burns in the palm of my hand… Enough
The hour of my release is close…Mercy
And you, my eyes, I beg you, believe it for yourselves
These stars in the bright sky will not go out
After your hurtful words
I wanted to forget your love
But I found myself more tightly bound to you
Like a candle that burns to please you
And my bed still weeps for you
5- Lâ tadkhulî-l-bahr/Do not set out to sea – 03’38
Do not set out to sea, the waves could mean your loss
Do not tempt the devil if you do not have the nerve
Do not follow the man who lacking nobility
Would lead his most faithful friend to ruin
Do not follow the man who has no dignity
And do not be charmed by the wolf’s deceitful smile
For he who betrays those close to him
Will not find it hard to abandon his companions
6- Farkh el hamem/O young pigeon – 04’06
O young pigeon, you who live in the tower
Fly high into the clouds
If you understand my distress and if you dare
Go quickly to my beloved and tell her that I love her
O you who buy quid
Consume it with moderation
Only take what is necessary
Hold me and do not forget me
O my uncle Mahmood, I need your advice
Everyone is sleeping soundly
And I alone cannot find rest
7- Khâfeg/Beating heart – 03’38
Beating heart – it has beaten harder
Since you swept through my being
Tumbling down the slope, it has hollowed out
Channels between my breasts
I have felt candles
Burn me to my very core
And I knew why
Before you even loved me
You wanted to flee
Beating heart – it has beaten harder
And thrown me over the clouds
Its taste is bitter
And burns like acid
It shudders with impatience…heavy and loud
Like a boat handled by a fisherman
Who cannot bring it in safe and sound
Beating heart – it has beaten harder
He has left me to languish
Tears rolling down my cheeks
I wanted so much to forget
But it was beyond my strength
And my friends, like my companions, mock me
8- Yâ cayn/O Eyes – 06’51
Weep for him
For today he is leaving
And flow onto my pillow and into my bed
For today, my beloved one has left
Abandoning me like a lonely bird
The one whom I believed to be my companion in misfortune
The bonds of tenderness he felt were flimsy
The bonds of the heart he felt could be broken
He rushed away, without saying goodbye
And left me to swallow my bitterness
And the gaping wound keeps bleeding, incurable
9- El ghorba/Nostalgia – 04’17
Exiled, far from those I love
My nights seem even longer
While thoughts crowd into my mind
And the tears flow
Solitude and nostalgia weigh me down
And my cheeks are drowned in tears
My tears weigh me down
And here in exile, my heart and mind are distraught
Here in the heavy absence of those I love!
I miss them
Mother! I miss you
I miss my uncles and the evenings we spent together
Should I return and see the man who promised so much
So that I may at last dry my eyes?
10- Zmân el wâguef/The era of the victor – 05’12
Your self-worth is your only friend
Do not be tricked by a companion or a peer
When everything is going well
Everyone will call you the Great Lord
But when times are hard
You will face the challenges alone
Those moments are the victor’s moments
The only ones who will follow you
Are the opportunists or those who fear you
Life is deceptive
So do not be careless
Do not be deceived by wealth
If money fills your pockets
Here is my advice, keep it for yourself
Do not give in if life becomes hard
We are mere autumn leaves swept along by the wind
And death follows you like a shadow, despite the generosity of fate
11- Heyma/Wanderings – 04’11
A moonless night, a sky filled with heavy clouds
Joy is far from me and my thoughts wander
O night stars! You have gone so far
And misfortune has been given free rein
O tell me, gentle sea
Where is the path of life leading me? I do not know!
I remember yesterday…how beautiful it was!
My friends were with me and my heart was full of joy
And here I am today, lost and exiled
So where is the path of life leading me?
O tell me, gentle sea
Where is the path of life leading me? I do not know!
All-powerful Lord! You alone know my suffering
Free me from this pain and help me forget what once was mine.
12- Dhâg khâtrî/Languor – 04’10
- Reference : 321.089
- Ean : 794 881 979 325
- Main artist : Abir Nasraoui (عبير نصراوي)
- Year of recording : 2005
- Year of publishing : 2010
- Music style: Folk music
- Country : Tunisia
- City of recording : Paris
- Main language : Arabic
- Compositers : Skander Guetari ; Traditional
- Lyricists : Leila Mekki ; Abir Nasraoui ; Traditional
- Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe
Available in CD : Buy here