Local Current Blog

Review and photos: At the Cedar, Tunisian artist EMEL protests through music

EMEL at the Cedar Cultural Center on May 10, 2017. All photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR.

Emel Mathlouthi may not be a household name in the U.S. But to many people across the world, the Tunisian singer symbolizes political protest, having become famous for her song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”) during the Arab Spring revolutions of the early 2010s. Since that song and her identically titled debut album, she has moved to New York City, performed at the 2015 Nobel peace prize ceremony, and released a second album called Ensen. On Wednesday, she supported that album by bringing her band to the Cedar Cultural Center for the first time since 2014.

From the looks of the show, EMEL’s music should have been grim. “There are shows with low light, and there are shows with no light,” one audience member commented after seeing the inky stage. EMEL’s clothes looked as dark and heavy as the eyeliner on her face. Even her Ensen album cover is high-contrast black and white, the artist’s curly hair and clothes almost disappearing into the background.

But from the first song on, EMEL sang with warmth — something she explained by saying, “As a Tunisian woman, as a musician […] there’s softness but there’s also fire.” For her first piece, she performed a live improvisation based off one of her favorite Jeff Buckley songs, “New Year’s Prayer.” She once told the Gulf Times she thought the seqence was “the most beautiful entry to the space in between sky and earth: the stage.”

From there, she performed most of Ensen, from “Lost” to “Kaddesh” to bonus track “Fi Kolli Yawmen.” Sometimes, she danced, turning slowly in a circle and raising her hands. On her left, a percussionist beat a drum pad (and for one song, a kit); to her right, a keyboardist punched in samples and electronic noise, piloting everything from buzzy security wand noises to splashes of quasi-hip-hop production. In one song, the band used established hip-hop production; EMEL sang over a track from Kanye West’s 2012 song “Clique.”

EMEL is impossible to sort into a genre. She doesn’t deliver major-scale gratification, so Western pop this was not. Her love of James Blake comes across in an undercurrent of smoldering electronica. But she finds herself alienated from “indie” and distances herself from “world music,” telling Pitchfork, “As soon as the indie and electronic labels hear Arabic singing, they say: ‘Oh OK, world music.’ At the same time, world music labels are like: ‘Oh my god, this is too different.’” She finds herself “like those people whose parents are immigrants,” she says, “so they will never be considered really American or French, and when they go to Tunisia they aren’t really Tunisian either.”

Like many other artists born of multicultural genealogies (see: Somali-Minnesotan band Ambassadors of Culture, or French artist Christine and the Queens, who covered Kanye and Christophe in the same song), EMEL navigates globalization with grace and some care. In most of her interviews, she gives brief, vague answers to questions about U.S. and international politics, brushing them off with, “I’m just doing things that are true to myself.” But during her show, she introduced “Ensen Dhaif” as “a song I wrote about capitalism […] We’re just sacrificing our lives, our passions […] to make a minority richer.” She dedicated “Kaddesh” to Syria’s children and “Layem” to the homeless. Protest doesn’t seem to be about politics for her. Instead, it must be about life — even the walk through the darkest valley — and keeping the fire alive.

elle pf (FKA Bae Tigre) opened with rock/synth/orchestral music from their upcoming debut album. Ranelle LaBiche is back from the former band as primary songwriter and producer, and drummer Katharine Seggerman (Lunch Duchess, BOYF) and violinist/guitarist Jenessa LaSota joined her at the Cedar on Wednesday.

Between EMEL and elle pf, the show’s small crowd hung around the Cedar in clusters, acting more like guests at a family gathering than ticketholders at a concert. “How do you say, ‘The music is very good?’” one woman asked another, leaning over from her plastic folding chair. The second woman answered her in German. Just behind them, two men chatted in Spanish, and across the room, a local DJ/producer caught up with one of Minneapolis’s most experienced rappers.

This kind of thing happens at the Cedar Cultural Center, a non-profit, all-ages venue with a special focus on international music. Some locals worry that the Minnesotan scene is too small — that the same artists play the same shows with the same people. But especially when the Cedar presents international talent like EMEL, it’s hard to find an excuse for being bored.

Additional photos by Emmet Kowler: