I met Sana Jlassi and Chouaib Brik, the masterminds behind Art Solution, the pioneering Tunisian association for urban culture and art founded in 2011, in the creative base of the association in Tunis. This space for creative expression and innovation, the Tag Store, made for a great setting for the discussion we had.
When Chouaib Brik founded Art Solution in 2011, there wasn’t any association or structure to expose and train urban artists, artists who identify themselves with urban and Hip Hop culture, an opening that Art Solution filled. In the beginning, they started off by organising events, especially dance performance and battle events and tournaments. As they gained ground, they went on to organise events in other regions, as well as workshops and trainings, in order to foster an artistic exchange between different disciplines. The STAM-BEAT project is a follow-up project to a research project called the Campaign for Stambeli Tradition (CST). The project was on the Stambeli culture and heritage, which lead to a documentary, Voices in the Distance, on this unique Tunisian tradition in danger of extinction and its history. The research project and documentary highlighted the critical situation this unique musical tradition found itself in now with only a very small community still practising and passing the heritage on.
Stambeli is a Tunisian syncretistic musical tradition, it is a rich heritage strongly influenced by sub-Saharan, as well as North African music genres and spirituality, and it’s tightly linked to spiritual healing rituals. The term “stambeli” designates both a healing music linked to trance dances, as well as a set of customs that are an original blend of sub-Saharan, Saharan and North-Saharan traits. Stambeli is usually associated with Gnawa, its Moroccan cousin, which has unlike Stambeli received international attention and appreciation. However, its influence lies at the roots of multiple Tunisian music genres. Both music traditions, Gnawa and Stambeli, have traditionally been practised and developed by the Black minorities and are generally associated with the history of black slave trade in North Africa. The transmission of knowledge in the Stambeli community has traditionally been from father to son, from master to disciple in the setting of communal houses, which makes them very closed communities. In Tunisia, there are only three masters still alive and only thirty people actively involved in practising the rituals and performances. Preserving the Stambeli heritage is essential to Tunisian music scene not only for the influence it had on the development of different music genres, such as Mezoued, but also for the diversity of the vibrant Tunisian cultural scene and the creative impulses it can give to new creations.
The STAM-BEAT project was created with the aim to make the Stambeli tradition more accessible to young people, to draw attention to its uniqueness and create new possibilities of artistic expression by mixing it with Hip Hop elements. The Stambeli elements present in this fusion are the vocals, the “chakachak” and the “gombri” played by Belhassan Mihoub, a well-known Stambeli musician participating in the project. The “gombri” is unique to the Stambeli tradition. The Hip Hop elements are added by an MPC player, a beatboxer and two dancers, Yesser Madi and Aymen Ben Abed.
However different, the participants in the project have found a certain resemblance of the two traditions, a resemblance more in the energy and the rhythm than in the techniques used. Both music cultures, Stambeli and Hip Hop, have roots in the African music heritage, and both traditions use trance-like dance techniques. As Chouaib Brik, who is the project designer, pointed out, STAM-BEAT is not only a cultural exchange in the Tunisian society but also a meeting point of two generations. Through this fusion and new art form in creation, both sides are opened up to each other, new influences and new perspectives on their own artistic background. Hip Hop is widely known and appreciated by a large number of people in Tunisia, especially in youth underground culture. However, it is still perceived as a bad lifestyle in Tunisian society and as such, it is marginalised. Therefore, it is two socially
Both music cultures, Stambeli and Hip Hop, have roots in the African music heritage, and both traditions use trance-like dance techniques. As Chouaib Brik, who is the project designer, pointed out, STAM-BEAT is not only a cultural exchange in the Tunisian society but also a meeting point of two generations. Through this fusion and new art form in creation, both sides are opened up to each other, new influences and new perspectives on their own artistic background. Hip Hop is widely known and appreciated by a large number of people in Tunisia, especially in youth underground culture. However, it is still perceived as a bad lifestyle in Tunisian society and as such, it is marginalised. Therefore, it is two socially
Therefore, it is two socially marginalised cultures that meet, exchange and mix in this unique initiative. Its goal is to raise awareness for the importance of preserving the Stambeli heritage in Tunisia, but also to open these two communities up to each other and thus, to create new possibilities of creation and exchange. This process of creating this fusion has had an influence on both sides already, as Sana Jlassi recounts: Belhassen Mihoub, the Stambeli musician who contributes the Stambeli elements to the fusion, wasn’t used to improvisation or experimentation in the beginning. So, he was very strict about how certain things were to be played, but bit by bit he opened up to other possibilities of musical expression in this collaboration.
A performance of the collective took place in the context of a festival organised by Art Solution in the Institut français de Tunisie in January 2017. Interestingly, the fusion of Stambeli and Hip Hop sounds combined with experimental dance techniques makes a rather futuristic impression. The strong rhythm driven by the “chakachak” and the interpretation by the dancers fuse into each other in a surprisingly smooth manner.
To my question whether a fusion with a more mainstream music tradition could reduce the survival chances of the Stambeli culture further, Brik pointed out that the positive effects of this fusion, such as the broader attention paid to this tradition’s critical situation and the possibilities for new creations, weight the possibility of negative effects significantly.
As for the future of the project, the collaboration will start a new residency soon in preparation of a representation in Brussels in June, and possibly an invitation to Korea in August. The project will be finished and ready for display in the context of such events by June. However, both Sana and Chouaib emphasised the importance of establishing a continuance of this innovative project into the future, since they believe that the exchange between these two traditions and their mutual support is vital for the survival of the Stambeli tradition.