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'The Artist is a Witness of his Time'- Lotfi Bouchnak

posted on: Oct 2, 2010

Lotfi Bouchnak’s exploration of varied genres has propelled him to international fame. Whether he sings malouf music, plays the oud or teams up with popular rap bands, Bouchnak continues to attract fans and win international awards.

Born in 1954 in Tunis, Lotfi Bouchnak was a student of the late Ali Sriti. He first gained recognition at the age of 27, with a song composed by the great Ahmed Sidki. Collaborations with Said Mikaoui, Iraqi Fathallah Ahmed, Anouar Brahem, Adam Fathi and others have marked his long career. Lotfi Bouchnak was named a UN Ambassador for Peace in 2004 Magharebia met with Bouchnak at his Tunis home to discuss his latest project and what it means for an artist with Maghreb roots to achieve international fame.

Magharebia: How did you start?

Lotfi Bouchnak: In the neighbourhood of Halfaouine in the old Medina of Tunis, I grew up on oral heritage and Andalusian music and the songs of Oum Kalthoum. I joined the Rachidia Institute when I was fifteen, one of the most famous music schools in Tunisia and the Maghreb. It was founded in 1934 to revive and develop the inherent tradition of Tunisia.

In Rachidia, I learned the first principles of singing and vocal control methods. I gradually gained the skill of playing the oud, and began a lonely journey in search of a wider world that would allow me to develop myself, and would give me the opportunity to innovate Arabic music. I live in this musical journey a kind of isolation.

Magharebia: Middle East music is more popular than music of the Maghreb, but you broke this rule and made Tunisian music international. So what’s your secret?

Bouchnak: For me, art is universal and it does not have a nationality. I do not think that the Maghreb dialect is an obstacle for it to be delivered to the world, and the spread of numerous Arab satellite channels, totalling nearly 800, is an important opportunity for the promotion of Maghreb art.

Nice and sincere things easily reach the hearts of the viewers, because what stems from the heart reaches the heart.

I hold the artists responsible for the non-proliferation of Maghreb art at the Arab level. They must start from their own origins and roots in order to be more sincere and convincing; I also hold local media responsible for not promoting ambitious art projects, because the media has an essential role in the promotion of art and artists.

Magharebia: You are currently recording an album of Sufi songs in praise of Al awliya’a as-saliheen (the saints). What is the message you want to project through this genre?

Bouchnak: First, I want to clarify that all the religious songs that I have produced are my own, because I am convinced that what artists sing in 2010 is not the same as what artists sang in the past, because each period has its own issues and each artist has his own private message to ensure continuity.

Sufi songs for me are not necessarily religious but rather spiritual and intended for people, and the message is human rights and duties, justice, dreams and revolution.

I am willing to continue on the same approach for which I was known more than thirty years ago, in the Sufi style, through the recording of a new album in praise of Al awliya’a as-saliheen known in the Maghreb, like Sidi Abou el-Hassan Chadli, and Sidi El Houari, Sidi Bou Said and Sidi Abdelkader Jilali. The new album falls within the Sufi style in my career, in which I already issued an album of invocations that included the poem of “Beautiful Names of Allah”, in addition to my experience of “Al Hadhra” with Fadhel Jaziri in 1997.

Magharebia: You did not ignore Arab and global issues. What did you want to say?

Bouchnak: The artist is a witness of his time, a witness to the suffering of people everywhere, in the wars, destruction and blood all over the world – as if it is planned for such images to be normal. As an artist, my main call is for love and tolerance and rejecting violence and respect for human rights wherever and whoever they are and whatever their religion and colour is.

Singing is not only a love story between a man and a woman, it addresses all subjects related to people. Magharebia: What is your understanding of “new songs”?

Bouchnak: The “new song” has content, an idea and a subject that affects the young and the old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated… It is a song to mankind.

Magharebia: You went against the mainstream, against the vulgar songs. How did you choose this?

Bouchnak: I did not want fame as much as I wanted to leave artwork that would remain in people’s memories and history.

Vulgarity in art is usual and rather necessary because it is unreasonable that everyone is ranked first.

Magharebia: Does that mean you are in the first place?

Bouchnak: No, that’s not what I meant, but I am striving for it, as this is a legitimate right and any person would want that in all fields. After all, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, moral and evil are all contradictions that make balance in the world, the same as we find the first and the last and with no doubt this applies to art as it is a human practice.

Magharebia: You are of the few artists in Tunisia that can fill the Carthage Theatre, but some people in the music industry oppose the idea of you playing in it every year. What do you say to them?

Bouchnak: When I’m ready I do not refuse any invitation, although I am attending the annual Carthage festival, I do not repeat myself; every time I bring a new project different from the previous ones. This is important for me, as I do not want to repeat myself for the public. I respect them.

Magharebia: How was your experience performing with French group “IAM” at the Giza pyramids?

Bouchnak: It was an honour for me to be solicited by such an international band and Algerian singer Cheb Khaled. I had the honour to write some of the words for the French rap group IAM, which emerged in Marseille in the early nineties, and I was frankly proud of the experience.

Magharebia: How will you participate in the “Silk Road” festival in Syria?

Bouchnak: I have the honour to be representing the artists of the Maghreb in this festival. I will be singing with eight artists from all over the world – improvising – which is the method of assessment and the standard of true artists. My participation with artists from different nationalities is a message of love and tolerance with all cultures and civilisations.

The nationality of art is global.

Houda Trabelsi
Magharebia in Tunis