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

(v) Amina Srarfi and El-'Azifat

In March 1992, the award winning violinist and pioneering conservatory director, Amina Srarfi, challenged the all-male hegemony of the instrumental sections of the Rashidiyya and Radio ensembles by forming her own all-female ensemble, El-Azifat. Srarfi's ensemble, whose repertory includes the ma'luf and other traditonal compositions, collectively known as turath, (patrimoin), claims to be 'the first all-female orchestra of Oriental and Tunisian music in Tunisia and in the Arab World as a whole' (anon. 1998).

Srarfi acknowledges that ensembles of all-female professional singers and instrumentalists used to entertain all-female audiences at wedding celebrations until early in the 20th century and she considers her ensemble to be an extension of this tradition. However, to the extent that El-'Azifat gives public performances to mixed audiences, its members are conservatory trained and musically literate, and most pursue professions outside music, the ensemble is indeed unprecedented. It comprises about 12-15 women in traditional costumes playing the typical instruments of the all-male Arab ensembles such as violins (normally several), 'ud, qanun, nay, double bass, darbukka, tar and occasionally, the piano, in varying combinations; the instrumentalists perform from notation and they provide the chorus; there is no solo voice. El-'Azifat plays in concerts and festivals all over Tunisia and it has made numerous trips abroad, in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Publicity poster for CD "El ‘Azifat"


The ensemble specialises broadly in the repertory with which Srarfi's father, Kaddur Srarfi, was associated. Apart from the ma'luf, this includes popular songs by Tunisian composers up to about the 1970s, now considered 'traditional.' Favourites of El-'Azifet are the chansons franco-tunisiennes of the 1920s and 1930s in a mixture of French and Tunisian Arabic dialect; songs from the same period by the Jewish singers Shaykh El-Efrit and Habiba Msika; the songs of Hedi Jouini, characterised by gypsy and Spanish influences including the use of castanets; and songs by the 'best' composers of the Rashidiyya such as Khemais Tarnane, Muhammad Triki, Ali Riahi, Salah el-Mahdi and Kaddur Srarfi.

"Vous dansez madame"
Chanson franco-tunisienne by the veteran Rashidiyya composer Muhammad Triki (d. 1991) El 'Azifat
(mp3 file, 290 kb, 1.12 min)

Srarfi describes the essential purpose of El-'Azifat as twofold: first, to prove that a Middle Eastern Islamic woman can perform as well as her male counterpart (a fact, she maintains, that Tunisian men will never acknowledge); and second, to prove that she can succeed independently of men. Derided by some as a gimmick, or more specifically, an establishment ploy to present a liberated image of Tunisia to foreign audiences, El-'Azifat fulfills a unique and arguably necessary role in Tunisian music. As L.JaFran Jones has observed, 'in Tunisia as elsewhere in the Middle East, women are singers, while instrumental music and music creation are the domain of men' (Jones 1987:177). Despite enjoying equal educational opportunities in the conservatories, where female instrumentalists reach the same standards as their male counterparts, hardly any female instrumentalists and no female conductors have been accepted into any of the major professional and specialist ensembles, notably the radio ensemble and the Rashidiyya.

In response to her detractors, Srarfi points out that unlike the Radio, the Rashidiyya and other specialist ensembles, El-'Azifat receives no subsidy from the government (13). And far from being a one-off gimmick, El-'Azifat seems to have started a trend: since its founding, several members of the group have broken away to found all-female ensembles of their own.

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