1. Introduction

In this paper, I present various alternative approaches to the interpretation of the traditional Arab repertory al- ma'luf, and the popular repertories associated with it, that emerged or acquired renewed prominence in Tunis in the early 1990s. The alternative approaches arose in a climate of mounting dissatisfaction with the established norms; and they went hand in hand with new directions in Tunisian cultural policy favouring decentralisation and the dismantling of unitary nationalist agendas.

Citing the Tunisian ma’luf as an example, Philip Bohlman has observed that "in the twentieth century [Middle Eastern] nations dominated by the centralisation and nationalisation of cultural resources, certain musical repertories and practices achieved a public presence and the concomitant popularity through parallel forms of centralisation, for example, by consolidating as national repertories of classical and semi-classical music…" (Bohlman 2001: 636). Comparable phenomena occurred under the influence of Soviet ideology in Europe and Central Asia, where state-controlled attempts to impose unified national cultures dominated the interpretation of art music repertories such as the Uzbek shashmaqam, or popular repertories such as those performed by Bulgarian and Armenian folk orchestras. In the Sovietized traditions, just as in the Middle Eastern examples Bohlman cites, musical nationalism and centralisation were accompanied by standardisation and the adoption of Western models.

In Tunisia, a new political era was heralded on 7/11/87 when President Habib Bourguiba, who had led the nation to Independence in 1956, was officially declared senile and, in a bloodless coup, succeeded by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1). This landmark event, officially known as Al-Taghrir ("The Change") is commonly presented by politicians and journalists as the source to which all subsequent initiatives in Tunisian society may be traced. My Tunisian colleagues, however, tend to attribute the changes in musical policy not so much to "The Change" itself, but rather, to a gradual shift in attitudes in favour of individualisation and diversification which, they claim, had begun to occur up to a decade earlier. For some, the political events in Tunisia have a wider significance. Fethi Zghonda, head of music in the Ministry of Culture through the 1980s and much of the 1990s, presented the Tunisian situation as part of a global trend towards decentralisation accompanying the demise of the Soviet Union and its cultural models (Fethi Zghonda, personal communication, April 2001). In Tunisia, as elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe and the former USSR, musicians have responded to the new ethos by attempting to reconstruct past modes of interpretation, picking up the threads of older practices before the era of state control. Whether independently or in support of their quest for authenticity, Tunisian musicians are increasingly promoting "personal expression" as an ideal for the ma’luf, including, in some cases, challenging traditional gender roles.

I summarise below the sequence of events, described in detail elsewhere, that produced a new sound and social identity for the ma'luf in Tunis in the 1930s and that caused this identity to predominate throughout Tunisia after independence in 1956 (2). I then outline certain political and institutional developments that have affected both the musical and social status of the ma’luf since the late 1980s. Finally, I sketch five projects featuring high profile musicians and singers which illustrate their contrasting approaches to the interpretation of the ma’luf and its related repertories in Tunis in the 1990s.

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