5c. Sounds of the nineties: authenticity and personal expression

(iii) Lotfi Boushnak: Malouf Tunisien

In Tahar Gharsa’s ensemble, as in the small solo instrumental ensembles that prevailed before the Rashidiyya, the solo vocalist and instrumentalists colour the melodies with spontaneous embellishments and subtle nuances of articulation. The Rashidiyya, in contrast, with its elimination of the solo vocalist, its thick string and choral textures masking any solo instrumental contributions, and its use of notation to define melodic detail, inhibited such channels of personal expression. In the 1990s, certain high profile singers have at once rediscovered and transformed the soloistic format, using the traditional melodies as vehicles for their individual vocal styles.

In 1993, the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris produced a recording entitled Lotfi Boushnak: Malouf Tunisien featuring the Tunisian media star, famous throughout the Arab world for his eclectic range of Tunisian and Egyptian popular styles, performing three waslat, or abbreviated nubat (al-asbahan, rast al-dhil and sikah). Boushnak sings solo throughout, backed by an ensemble of nine solo instrumentalists on violin, nay, qanun, 'ud, cello, double bass, naqqarat, darbukka and tar.

"Muwashshah. Wasla al-asba'in."
Lotfi Boushnak - Malouf Tunisien
(mp3 file, 282 kb, 1.10 min)

Lotfi Bushnak

Born in Tunis in 1954, Boushnak describes himself as an 'autodidact:' like most Tunisian singers (as opposed to players) he had no formal musical education and he does not read music. He learnt the ma'luf in the choruses of the state youth ensembles that rehearsed in the National Conservatory and the Maison de Culture Ibn Khaldun in Tunis, and from the canonic recordings of the Rashidiyya and the Radio ensemble, taken from the radio. Boushnak began incorporating songs from the ma'luf into his solo repertory in the early 1990s; the compact disc itself was an initiative of the Maison des Cultures du Monde, inspired by a recital he gave there. The compact disc was followed by cassettes for the Tunisian market and by the mid-1990s, Lotfi Boushnak's renderings of the traditional love-songs could be heard blasting from the cassette stalls in downtown Tunis, competing with the latest hits of other popular stars.

If Boushnak's soloistic interpretations seem like a throwback to traditional practice, as represented by Tahar Gharsa, this impression is misleading. Gharsa accompanies himself on the 'ud 'arbi and his solo voice alternates with a chorus provided by the instrumentalists. Boushnak, in contrast, maintains the strict separation between voice and instruments established by the Rashidiyya and he dispenses with the chorus altogether, his voice alternating with the instruments alone.

Boushnak does, however, maintain a distinctive instrumental backing for the ma'luf, using only the string and traditional Arab melody and percussion instruments of the Rashidiyya in contrast to the electric guitars, keyboard and drum kit he uses in contemporary songs. He also adopts a distinctive vocal style emphasising the correct Tunisian pronunciation of the words. Unlike Tahar Gharsa, however, Boushnak makes no claim to authenticity, a fact acknowledged by his audiences. He insists that he has his own style influenced by no other singer, which no one taught him: a chorus master can teach the 'grands lignes,' he explains, but the expressive nuances that constitute a singer's personal style are his own.

Again unlike Gharsa, Boushnak has no special commitment to the ma'luf, itself a relatively recent addition to his repertory, or to its related popular traditions. Indeed, when I met him in his studio in Tunis in April 2001, Boushnak insisted that he had had enough of the archaic love songs whose sentiments, he believed, had no relevance for today's world: 'je ne suis pas un guardian du patrimoine.' (12) Moreover, while Gharsa sings mainly to Tunisian audiences, preferably in informal settings, Boushnak, a jet-setting star, confines his public appearances to prestigious, high profile events such as gala concerts and international festivals.

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