In the center of the Tunisian capital, music wafts through the air in the Avenue Habib Bourgiba, and in other outlying streets.
In front of the film theaters and cultural centers, people gather in huddles to watch bands playing multilingual songs on their favorite instruments; the guitar, drums, and the Tunisian goblet drums (darbuka).
In a burst of excitement, an audience member might break into dance to the melodies. As the performance comes to a close, the crowds scatter, leaving behind their spare change.
Prior to the revolution, such a scene would have been entirely alien in Tunis, but things have changed over the past six years, and new currents have been born.
In Defiance of State Harassment
For the Tunisian authorities, these street performers pose a threat, or at the very least a disturbance that obstructs pedestrian traffic. Moreover, the prospect of alternative forms of artistic production outside of the framework of the state or the law is equally problematic, given that such performers are not subject to the state censorship authorities.
Though the authorities justify their harassment of street performers on the basis that they are obstructing streets, many believe that they are simply enforcing the authoritarian strategies inherited from the pre-2011 dictatorship.
Against this backdrop, a conflict erupted in 2015 between security forces and street performers, when the former arrested the Al-Fann Silaa’h (Art is a Weapon) group, preventing them from bringing their performances to the street again.
However, the band members have stood in defiance of such orders, insisting that nobody has the authority to deny them the right to perform. In turn, the conflict aroused a great deal of media controversy.
Guitarist Mahdi Khalifa, 28, was part of the band when it was banned. He tells Raseef22 that the conflict began in April 2015, when plainclothes security men forcibly pushed them out of Jean Juares Street, off of Habib Bourgiba Street, into the downtown police station.
Khalifa notes that they were forced to sign affidavits—a practice he claims is illegal—stating that they will no longer perform on the streets. However, after immense media and popular pressure, the band continued performing, in breach of the authorities’ demands.
Islam Al-Jame’iy, 25, a oud player who studies Arabic music at the World Music Institute in Tunisia, tells Raseef22 that the streets are filled with uniquely talented musicians who are practicing their passion without disturbing anyone. He notes that this is a far more constructive practice than others, pointing to the potential that these youth may instead find themselves absorbed into criminal circles.
Pre-Arab Spring Streets
Amid the strict clampdown imposed by security forces at the time, Arab musician generally refrained from venturing into the streets with their art prior to the Arab revolutions in 2011, in light of existing bans against “gatherings”.
Yet the first appearance of Arab street musicians is said to have been in Algeria, during the French occupation, and lasting until the late 1980s, with the beginnings of the political and security crises in the nation.
As for Tunisia, there had been occasional street celebrations and musical performances, but these were tied to certain holidays or events coordinated by the state to project a positive image of the regime.
At the time, some young musicians attempted to take their performances to the streets spontaneously. However, they were confronted by the authorities, and banned.
Street music as a political weapon in Tunisia.
Khalifa says that in 2008, when he and a group of his friends tried to form a band and perform in the street, they were prevented by state forces.
While they were performing on Ibn Khaldoun Street in Tunis, security forces surrounded them and confiscated their instruments, instructing them to never approach the midtown area again.
After the Tunisian revolution, there was a marked overhaul in the music scene. During the World Social Forum in 2013, new genres of music began to appear, inspired by musical experiments from Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Young musicians began venturing into these genres, whether individually or in bands, choosing the street as their stage. In some cases, this was simply due to the lack of other platforms; however, many were thirsty to challenge the traditionalist approaches to musical production and performance.
Guitarist Anis Al-‘Elwy, 28, came to Tunis from Sers in the northernmost regions of Tunisia 10 years ago to work in the capital. However, after the revolution, he decided to develop his musical talents, and chose the streets to do so.
Captivated by singing in open spaces, he was among the first to initiate the street music movement, he tells Raseef22.
A Hub for Rebellion?
In its bare, stripped down form, street music has essentially existed for centuries, as a form of art that does not adhere to the limitations of time and space, or the traditional rules governing cultural production.
Street music first became widespread in Europe, at the turn of the 20th century, either as a means to earn money, or as a response to existing political or economic conditions.
Such music became popular in France prior to the student movement of May 1968, which arose in response to the government’s restrictions on intellectuals, as well as growing dissatisfaction with Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy at the time.
Students would meet in their universities and on the streets and public squares to sing anthems of rebellion against their government.
Since then, street music has been a worldwide symbol of rebellion against regimes or existing socio-political conditions—a role that Tunisia’s street performers seem bent on reviving.