The Tunisian singer-songwriter tells us about dedicating her career to celebrating the cultural riches of the Arab world
Ghalia Benali: 'I spent a lot of time trying to introduce the Arab world to European audiences'
There is no stage upon which Ghalia Benali does not feel comfortable. From European jazz and cabaret bars to art galleries and literary and music festivals, the Tunisian singer and painter has headlined them all with an evocative body of work that channels the best of the Arab world’s artistic traditions.
Last week, she was in Abu Dhabi performing at the Mother of The Nation Festival with a lively and quirky set encompassing everything from the classical Arabic pop covers of Um Kalthum to the searing poetry of Islamic Sufi poet Ibn Al Arabi.
The performance was as much a showcase for the 49-year-old’s restless creative spirit as a reminder of the region’s contribution to the artistic world. Judging by the contented faces in the audience, the crowd of youthful fans and families were as entertained as they were proud.
“That’s part of the message,” Benali says in her chat with The National before the first of two nightly performances last Wednesday and Thursday.
“What I am trying to illustrate is that we come from a deep artistic heritage and there are so many jewels within that. They should be studied, appreciated and cherished.”
That mission has been refined over time and with experience. Born in the Belgian city of Brussels, Benali got her first taste of her native country at the age of four when the family returned to the coastal home city of Zarzis in south-east Tunisia after the completion of her father’s medical studies.
Over the next 15 years, Benali’s creative spirit bloomed, as did her with fascination with visual art, acting and, most notably, listening to the songs of Arabic classical music’s golden era singers such as Um Kulthum, Sabah Fakkhri and Abdel Halim Hafez.
Despite the family encouragement, with Benali performing impromptu plays at home, she knew there was still a line that could not be crossed. “It had to be kept inside the house,” she says. “I came from a family that, I guess, you would call a bit bourgeois. Yes, we loved and were encouraged to study music, literature and the arts in general, but they were to be kept indoors. There was no notion of any of us going outside to perform at celebrations or concerts. Performing on stage was unheard of.”
It was only when Benali returned to Belgium as a 19-year-old, this time to complete her own degree in visual arts, that the performance bug hit. Benali recalls that the country was swept up by the world-
music genre in the early 1990s. “It was a creatively rich time. Like the UAE, Belgium is a small and very multicultural place with lots of creative people from different cultures,” she says. “At that time, and still today, there was a high value in culture and exchanges of ideas. It’s that exchange of ideas and viewpoints that I am always drawn to.”
Benali made a name for herself in the tight Belgian music scene as a versatile performer, she had appearances with jazz groups and collaborated with fusion bands that melded international sounds with her regional vocal stylings and dance. While content at being able to express herself, Benali realised she wasn’t actually creatively fulfilled.
“I spent a lot of time trying to introduce the Arab world to European audiences,” she says. “Which was nice and important, but at the same time I felt disconnected in a way. I felt like I should be reaching out to Arab audiences. I was telling our story and history, and I wanted what I was doing to connect with them because they will truly understand.”
Once that path was defined, Benali dipped back into the old classic sounds and poetry she studied in Tunisia and presented them with modern instrumentation, such as her strong debut album, Wild Harissa in 2001 and then Nada, released the following year.
Not long after came her landmark release, The Um Kulthum Album (2010), a collection of covers from the legendary Egyptian that became her biggest success yet. Released internationally through the Dutch label, Music and The World, the album was a hit across Europe, with Benali selling out shows to 1,000-strong audiences.
Benali could have another potential crossover favourite with her latest album Mwsoul. Released independently last year, the album is steadily gaining attention with its a moody and soulful songs, her lyrics paired with stark jazzy instrumentation.
In the album’s highlight,
the ruminative Wind’s Daughter, one can hear in her rich and husky tones some of the wisdom Benali gleaned from her many cross-cultural journeys: “Connection is lost, but love is connected. Distances are stretched and waves are interrupted. Yet longing remains and love still wanders in the hearts.”
“Mwsoul is about connections,” she says. “Between people, culture, arts and different histories. That’s one of the stories that I have been trying to say with my work. The more I do this, the more I don’t describe myself as a singer or artist, instead, I look at myself as simply a communicator.”
Mwsoul by Ghalia Benali is out now on Werf Records