5d. Sounds of the nineties: authenticity and personal expression

(iv) Sonia M'Barek: Tawshih and Takht

Like Lotfi Bushnak, Sonia M'Barek is a popular media star known for her solo renderings of the ma'luf. Her voice is heard daily on Tunisian radio and her name was known to every taxi driver I rode with in Tunis. Born in Sfax in 1969, M'Barek studied at the National Conservatory where her teachers included Tahar Gharsa and Salah el-Mahdi. She claims to be highly discriminating in her choice of repertory, focusing on traditional Egyptian and Tunisian songs, including the ma'luf, and new songs by selected Tunisian composers. Her musical tastes, she explains, reflect her personal identification with Tunisan culture and history, and she considers the ma'luf an important part of that identity. M'Barek is equally discriminating in matters of venue: she eschews hotels, weddings and other private functions and performs only in public concerts, where the music is 'for listening.' Like Boushnak, M'Barek claims to have her own vocal style, influenced by no-one in particular. She agrees that unlike Tahar and Zied Gharsa, her style is not particularly Tunisian; rather, she personalises the ma'luf, singing the songs in her own way.

In 1997, M'Barek made a cassette, produced by the CMAM, entitled Tawchih (literally, 'ornament') in which she presents a twenty minute extract from nubat al-asbain (waslat al-asbain), a sequence of muwashshahat from the ma'luf in maqam sikah, songs by the veteran composers of the Rashidiyya, Shaykh Khemais Tarnane and Muhammad Triki, and a new song by the young Tunisian composer Abdelhakim Belgaied. In this recording, M'Barek's supple, full-bodied, caressing voice is offset by a light instrumental backing of violin, nay, 'ud, qanun, cello, riqq and darbukka; like Bushnak, she sings without chorus.

Tawchih was released on compact disc in 1999 by Club du Disque Arabe (Artistes Arabes Associes). In the same year, World Network produced Takht (literally, 'platform,' the term used to designate the traditional solo instrumental ensemble of urban Arab music). Takht features M'Barek with the same line-up as Tawchih in a live concert recording at the WDR-Funkhaus in Cologne, in June 1998. In addition to the song by Belgaied and the extract from nubat al-asbain featured on Tawchih, Takht comprises solo renderings of waslat al-sikah, al-kurdi and al-hsin, a samai (an Ottoman derived instrumental genre), and a new song by the Tunisian composer Muhammad Mejri.

Muwashshah. Wasla al-asba'in."
Sonia M'Barek - Takht
(mp3 file, 406 kb, 1.41 min)

Sonia M’Barek

With their English titles and extensive notes in French and English (Tawchih) and German, French and English (Takht) M'Barek's CDs are clearly aimed at foreign, non-Arab audiences. M'Barak sees her own future direction in 'world music' which in her view, embraces the concept of 'authenticity' in the sense of ‘music reflecting the character of a particular people or place.’ Criticised by some Tunisian purists for her improper pronunciation of the texts and her 'exaggerated' expression, M'Barek has scored considerable successes abroad. Not only is the small solo ensemble format more practical and commercially viable for foreign tours; paradoxically, the clear, solo textures of the predominantly Arab instruments and M'Barek's expressive, albeit inauthentic vocal style are more appealing to Western musical aesthetics than the large Westernised orchestras and choruses of the Rashidiyya and similar establishment ensembles.

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