Powerful singing transcends language.
Emel Mathlouthi played the Diego Rivera Room tonight at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. On the website announcing her gig, there was a youtube video. Emel Mathlouthi is on the street in a crowd of people. She’s dressed in a red winter coat. A warm scarf is wrapped around her neck. She’s singing into a microphone, her eyes flicker with fear, but she keeps singing her song – the Arab Spring’s Movement’s song – into a microphone, My Word is Free. It is the first song she put music to with words by someone other than herself. The poem by a friend touched her heart and music flowed. My Word is Free became the anthem for thousands of people protesting the Tunisian regime, and then the Egyptian. Millions all told.
I quickly got dressed and drove down to hear her; I knew it was something special, not to be missed. I arrived just in time.
She began playing the electric guitar and singing in a language I didn’t know. The tone in her voice spoke of the desire for diversity, for freedom, for independence. In my mind’s eye I saw her on a mountainside tending a herd and singing to the sky. Her voice sounded like a prayer.
She introduced the next song, “It’s my favorite song to play on the guitar. I think this is one of the first songs everyone learns when they first pick up the guitar.” She hoped we would like her take on it. I think she’s going to play Stairway to Heaven. She played Smells like Teen Spirit.
She called herself a humanist and wanted to sing a song for the homeless, because “one should always remember the people living on the streets.”
A young man calls out from the audience for the song Hallelujah.
She looked up and said, “You know me.” “I do. I do know you. We met in Cairo.”
“Last year?” she asks. He answers with excitement, “Yes, I drove 400 miles to hear you tonight.”
She launched into Cohen’s song. Big tears streamed down my face. I felt self-conscious, but I hid behind my hair. Her last song was sung in a demanding voice calling out for “Liberte.”
She encouraged a sing-along. I couldn’t understand how she was making the sound she was making so I remained quiet. Others succeeded in mimicking her cry.
She seemed brave and vulnerable at the same time. She sang for everyone’s enlightened human rights. That her first song was Teen Spirit written by a man who would have been my age had he lived made Emel Mathouthi seem young to me. And to know she was the voice of the Arab Spring, her song at the center of a revolution that spanned across the top of Africa, I felt awe and gratitude.
But that’s how it goes, isn’t it? The young lead the way.