Jasmine Revolution inspires musicians, composers in Tunisia
Music and politics have shared a connected fate throughout history. Sometimes music is used to celebrate an event, such as a presidential inauguration; in another case, a composer might write a piece as a reaction to a political event. One famous example of the latter is Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude,” which he composed in 1831 after hearing that Russia had just invaded his native Poland.
While the public sometimes views classical music as an abstract, intellectual art form, it has its roots in a nation’s people, from whom it takes its melodies and its inspiration. One country that strongly illustrates the will of the people to hear and create music is Tunisia. Last year’s political revolution, known to many as the “Jasmine Revolution,” resulted in the broadening of political freedoms in many respects, especially artistic freedom. This new capacity to freely express and explore new art forms has taken root in multiple disciplines including the visual arts, theater, and Western classical music.
Tunisia has a unique geographic location. It is close enough to Europe to maintain significant political and cultural relations, but it is also a distinctly African country, a member of the Arab League among other Middle Eastern political organizations. Just as its political identity is a mixture between the Western and the Middle Eastern worlds, so is their musical culture. Italian expatriates built the country’s first opera house in Tunis in 1821, establishing the presence of Western music in the country; recent regimes have promoted both Turkish and popular Tunisian music of working-class origins.
With the political revolution, however, classical music proponents are finding a voice. Tunisian musicians have made great stride in a short amount of time in both performance and composition. The Kennedy Center recently hosted a night of Tunisian music on the anniversary of the revolution that featured composer Jaloul Ayed’s symphony “Hannibal de Barca” and two originals compositions by the young violinist Nidhal Jebali, who studies in America at the University of Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music. The Atlas Foundation, an international economic think tank, also established a summer camp in the picturesque rural village of Beni M’tir that provides students that opportunity to learn from international artists and access to high quality instruments that would otherwise not be available.
While there are still challenges to be met by Tunisia’s growing classical music community, the desire to expand their influence has given them great momentum. In America, it can be easy to forget who fortunate we are to live in a country that upholds freedom of expression as one of our country’s essential values. Classical music, although its influence sometimes wavers, is an established art form that anyone can access. In Tunisia, where access music is less readily available, these steps towards a distinct Tunisian voice in classical the tradition are both important and inspiring. As we continue to collaborate with Tunisian musicians in both performance and education, we should emulate their drive to spread classical music throughout their country’s culture. We don’t need a political revolution, but why not a musical revolution?