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Music of Tunisia

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Title: Music of Tunisia  
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Subject: Music of Niger, Music of Morocco, Music of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Moroccan pop, Music of Africa
Collection: Tunisian Music
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Music of Tunisia

Tunisia is a North African country with a predominantly Arabic-speaking population. The country is best known for malouf, a kind of music imported from Andalusia after the Spanish conquest in the 15th century. Though in its modern form, malouf is likely very dissimilar to any music played more than four centuries ago, it does have its roots in Spain and Portugal, and is closely related to genres with a similar history throughout North Africa, including malouf's Libyan cousin, Algerian gharnati and Moroccan ala or Andalusi. During the Ottoman era, malouf was highly influenced from Turkish music. Even now most of malouf examples are very similar to Turkish classical music.

20th century musicians from Tunisia include Anouar Brahem, an oud player, Jasser Haj Youssef, a composer and a violin player, and El Azifet, a rare all-female orchestra, as well as well-known vocalist Raoul Journo, singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef, singer, guitarist and lutenist Nabil Khemir [1], Lotfi Bouchnak, Khemais Tarnane, Saliha, Saleh Mehdi, Ali Riahi, Hedi Jouini, Fethia Khairi, Chikh El Ofrit, Oulaya and Neema.

Popular singers include Nabiha Karaouli [2], Sonia Mbarek, Saber el Robbai, Amina, Soufia Sedik, Amina Fakhet, Nawal Ghachem and Latifa, and the lateThekra.

21st century alternative music groups include Neshez [3], Zemeken [4], Aspirine, Kerkennah, Myrath and Checkpoint 303 [5]. (see Tunisian underground music)

Modern music festivals in Tunisia include Tabarka Jazz Festival [6], Testour's Arab Andalusian Music Festival and the Sahara Festival in Douz.


  • Malouf 1
    • Structure 1.1
    • History 1.2
  • Mezwed 2
  • Salhi 3
  • Bibliography 4
  • External links 5


Malouf is played by small orchestras, consisting of violins, drums, sitars and flutes. Modern malouf has some elements of Berber music in the rhythms, but is seen as a successor to the cultural heights reached by Muslim Andalusia. Malouf has been called "an emblem of (Tunisian) national identity" [7]. Nevertheless, malouf can not compete commercially with popular music, much of it Egyptian, and it has only survived because of the efforts of the Tunisian government and a number of private individuals. Malouf is still performed in public, especially at weddings and circumcision ceremonies, though recordings are relatively rare. The term malouf translates as familiar or customary.

Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger is an important figure of modern Tunisian music. He collected the rules and history of malouf, which filled six volumes, and set up the Rachidia (الرشيدية), an important conservatory which is still in use.


Malouf is based on qasidah, a kind of classical Arabic poetry, and comes in many forms, including the post-classical muwashshah, which abandons many of qasidah's rules, shgul, a very traditional form, and zajal, a modern genre with a unique format.

The most important structural element of malouf, however, is the nuba is a musical form introduced to North Africa with the migration of Muslim inhabitants of Spain in the 13 and 14th Century. It is divided to many parts :Isstifta7 Msader which are instrumental pieces Then come Attouq and the Silsla which introduce to the poems. The sung pieces begin with the Btaihia: A set of poem composed on the Main mode of the Nuba (There are several Modes in Tunisian Music Thaiil raml Sikah tounssia Ispahan Isbaaïn) on a heavy syncoped rhythm called BtaiHi. Then come al barawil, Al khfeiif Al Akhtam which close the Nuba. The rhythms grow fast from a component to anther of the Nuba. Each component of a Nouba has its specific rhythm which are the same in all the 13 Nouba known today.

According to legend, a distinct nuba once existed for every day, holiday and other event, though only thirteen remain. Partway through a nuba, an improvisational section was played in the maqam of the following day to ready the audience for the next performance.


The earliest roots of the malouf can be traced to a court musician from Baghdad named Ziryab. He was expelled from the city in 830, and travelled west, stopping finally at Kairouan, the first Muslim city of great power in Africa. The city was a center for North African (Maghebian) culture, and was the capital of the Aghlabite dynasty. Ziryab crossed the Maghreb and then entered Cordoba during a period of cultural innovation among the diverse inhabitants of the region. He became a court musician again, and used influences from the local area, the Maghreb and his native Middle East to form a distinctively Andalusian style.

Beginning in the 13th century, Muslims fleeing persection by Christians in what is now Spain and Portugal settled in cities across North Africa, including Tunis, bringing with them their music. Tunisian malouf, and its closely related cousin in Libya, was later influenced by Ottoman music. This process peaked in the middle of the 18th century, when the Bey of Tunisia, Muhammad al-Rashid, a musician, used Turkish-style instrumental compositions in his work and firmly set the structure of the nuba. Though his system has evolved considerably, most of the instrumental sections of modern nubat are derived from al-Rashid.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia became a French protectorate and the declining malouf was revitalized. Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger, a French-naturalized Bavarian living near Tunis, commission a collection of ancient works, working with Ali al-Darwish of Aleppo. Al-Darwish and d'Erlanger's pioneering study of Tunisian music was presented at the International Congress of Arabic Music, held in 1932. Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger died only a few months after the congress, which revolutionized Arab music across the world. In Tunisia, the meeting inspired the Rachidia Institute, which was formed in 1934 to preserve the malouf. The Rachidia Institute undertook some alterations, revising lyrics that were considered profane, and also constructed two performance spaces in the old city of Tunis. The Institute also helped to transition malouf from being performed by folk ensembles with only a few instrument (including 'ud, tar, darbuka, rabab and bendir) to symphonic pieces inspired by Western classical music and Egyptian ensembles.

The most influential such orchestra was called the Rashidiyya Orchestra, led by violinist Muhammad Triki. Rashidiyya Orchestra used a large chorus as well as contrabass, cello, violin, nay, qanun and 'ud sharqi, and followed the developing rules of Arab musical theory and notation. The thirteen surviving nubat were created during this time, distilled from the highly divergent folk forms still in use. Western musical notation was used; along with the popularization of recorded music, the use of improvisation quickly declined. These changes helped to popularize the malouf, though not without critics, and gave the music a reputation as classical art music.

After Tunisian independence in 1957, the country's first president, Habib Bourguiba, promoted the malouf, recognizing its unifying potential. The then-director of the Rashidiyya Orchestra, Salah el-Mahdi, wrote the Tunisian national anthem, and eventually also became the leader of the music department of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. His musical theories became a major part of the Orchestra, as well as its successor, Institut Supérieur de Musique.


Purely Tunisian music with pop Tunisian touch. Most popular mezwed singers are Heddi Habbouba, Habib el Khal,Samir Loussif, Hedi Donia,Faouzi Ben Gamra, Zina Gasriniya, Fatma Bousseha,Nour Chiba.


Another authentic Tunisian genre, known as Salhi, can be heard on these tracks from 1931 [8], some of which are sung by Ibrahim Ben Hadj Ahmed, and others by another singer called Ben Sassi. The style may be related to Berber music, and is just as ancient and authentic as a facet of the (Tunisian) national identity"


  • (French) Abassi, H, Tunis chante et danse. 1900-1950, éd. Du Layeur, Paris, 2001
  • Davis, R. Ma'luf: Reflections on the Arab Andalusian Music of Tunisia, Lanham, 2004

External links

  • (French) Audio clips: Traditional music of Tunisia. Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Mezoued. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Zokra. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Tbal. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Darbuka. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Naqara. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Gasba. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Rabab. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Ud. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Gombri. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Chkacheks. The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • Audio clip: Tabla "Tijania". The Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre. Accessed November 25, 2010.
  • (French) Chants traditionnels tunisiens (1931)
  • (French) Association des supporters de la création musicale
  • (English) Online Tunisian music player
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