5e. Sounds of the nineties: authenticity and
|(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).
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.
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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