The making of a creative debate in Tunisia

The need for a cultural revolution is emerging in Tunisia’s young and thriving electro scene
Photo credit: Hamza Bennour. "Secret vibes #13" in downtown Tunis, Tunisia on 30 July 2017.

Tunisia has recently shown promising achievements, such as the new law against gender-based violence that was passed at the end of July 2017, making Tunisia the leading country in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region in women’s rights. However, the fact that the political revolution in Tunisia lacks a “cultural” focus is a regularly discussed topic within the community of young Tunisian activists and civil society.

The call for a cultural revolution was discussed by Amal Bintnadia, a vigilant activist who is part of the feminist association CHOUF and the collective La Fabrika, a platform for experimental art, alternative design, and activism, in an interview with mixmag France. La Fabrika, which started in Paris, France, aims to bring together artists and DJs to organize techno parties in Tunisia. “No [political] revolution can be achieved without a cultural revolution accompanying it,” said Bintnadia. She reiterated this statement to me and also clarified that such a revolution “…is for the mind – in the sense of changing mentalities. It’s not a question of electronic music, or other, but rather it is one of all art put together.” The cultural revolution must be led and advanced by individuals in Tunisia’s cultural sector, through performance art, public debates, street theatre and art, or musical movements.

A young scene thriving despite difficulties

“The Tunisian electro scene is a scene that has been evolving and growing little by little over the past few years, despite the political instability of the country and the corruption”  explained Hamdi Ryder, a DJ who co-founded Downtown Vibes (DV) with Aymen Ghannoudi. DV is a highly innovative collective of Tunisian DJs and artists whose goal is to promote underground producers, DJs, and new talents who would not be seen in clubs otherwise. “And this is what sets us apart from electro scenes elsewhere, which exist already for about 20 years, with record shops and an existing and thriving music industry,” continued Ryder.

DV regularly organizes secret rooftop parties called “Secret Vibes” and “Wax Day”, an event based on the appreciation for vinyl records. The collective, which focuses more on house music, but is strongly influenced by hip hop, disco, and funk, has diversified and vitalized the local electro scene in the past four years to broaden its audience’s musical horizon.

Photo credit: Hamza Bennour. “Secret vibes #13” in downtown Tunis, Tunisia on 30 July 2017.

The main obstacle for those working in the electro scene is the lack of sufficient music industry infrastructure. This helps explain the prevalence of piracy among both amateurs and the electro scene’s audience, according to Imen Klilib, a communications and audiovisual production consultant. Additional obstacles for electro DJs and producers include difficulties in externalizing their music. In other words, a Tunisian music creative can only sell or distribute their music on foreign digital platforms. This is a problem for Tunisian electro producers because they cannot directly benefit from a circuit of “mastering,” sufficient foreign distribution, or a targeted online promotion.

Despite these difficulties, the scene has come to be associated with some of the biggest festivals in the country, such as the Fairground Festival, Éphèmere, Djerba Fest, Les Dunes Électroniques, or the Sounds of Sahara. Despite the fact that there are about 500 DJs working in Tunisia, the artists and actors in the scene call themselves “alternatives” – alternative in the sense of being outside the system. This refers to several problems for the electro scene that extend back to the Ben Ali regime, which ended as a result of the revolution of 2011. For example, there is no official working status for DJs because t is not an officially recognized profession.

However, Dorra Mongalgi, a feminist activist of CHOUF and DJ AWRAH, sees potential in female DJs, whose numbers are increasing in this male-dominated field. “I admire female DJs in particular, because for me they are making their way in a place, where many others would be afraid to.”

Stigmatization

The electro scene and its audience still deal with stigmatization within Tunisian society, which associates the scene with an abundance of alcohol, and drugs, according to Zeineb Chaker. A minimal tech DJane and audiovisual artist, also known as DJ Oz, Chaker has been active in the scene since its beginning. The association of electro music with drugs and an immoral lifestyle has negative effects on the music scene’s development. Tunisian mainstream media gives it negative press and there is also no funding from the state, which further marginalizes the scene.

Photo credit: Hamza Bennour. “Secret vibes #13” in downtown Tunis, Tunisia on 30 July 2017.

Mastering a scandal

At the end of March 2017, the electro scene attracted international attention with a scandal involving the Berlin-based DJ Dax J. He sampled an “adhan” – a Muslim call to prayer – into his mix in a club in Nabeul, Tunisia, as part of the Orbit Festival. The nightclub was shut down after footage of the remix attracted the attention of Islamic authorities and surfaced online. The festival apologized in a Facebook post for the incident, but without, however, taking responsibility for the choice of music. Following this incident, DJ Dax J was sentenced to one year in prison for “violation against morality, and public outrage against modesty”, a sentence he eventually escaped by leaving Tunisia.

After the incident and the conservative backlash, one of the fears from those active in the scene was that it would become considerably more difficult to organize events with foreign DJs. However, the scene seems to have swiftly recovered from the incident. In fact, Hamdi Ryder noted that there was not a significant change in the scene after the incident. For him, it was just another media incident that revealed the political instability in Tunisia, and also the corruption of the juridical system. DJ Oz pointed out that it has become more difficult to invite foreign DJs for gigs in Tunisia as well as receive authorization and funding for events.

Especially disappointing for many has been the fact that no open discussion on the subject, with equal consideration for both sides, took place – neither in public nor in the media. “There was no space for discussion on this subject,” Mongalgi explains, and “no stance was acceptable except the one demonizing the scene as immoral and delinquent.”

Creative mobilization

Currently, the Tunisian electro scene consumes, rather than creates, according to Hamdi Ryder. Those who create do it in their own interest, rather than create a community and spread knowledge and skills. So, discussion about a cultural revolution within the scene would involve envisioning and creating an educational structure for electronic music creation that would: give knowledge back to the community; provide an organizational structure for those who work in the scene; create a structure for radio programs, and establish record stores and places where the community could build a stable and creative base. The overarching goal would be to build a community, spread knowledge, and expand minds.

“We need to change the bad habits of the Ministry of Culture. We need an official status and rights for artists. We need funding and a [juridical] framework provided by the state. We need to change archaic ideas, culturally speaking. We need to free political art – something very difficult in a police state where human rights breaches are common.” – DJ Oz

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DevelopmentHuman Rights
Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently working in a Gender research project in Tunis. Fluent in German, English, and French, she has spent time living and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. For the past 3 years, she has focused her work and studies on the Maghreb. Living on and off in Tunis, she has been working as a Freelance Researcher, and for NGO projects focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. She is also interested in photography, art, and has been experimenting with music, and mixing of sounds.

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