From horror movies to folk music, Tunisian artist finds inspiration in childhood memories

“Having the series set in the ’90s is an ode to a period in Tunisia during which everything seemed simple.” - Tunisian artist Abdelhamid Bouchnak
Saturday 06/07/2019
UK poster for Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s horror movie “Dachra.” (Courtesy of Abdelhamid Bouchnak)
Inspired by memories. UK poster for Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s horror movie “Dachra.” (Courtesy of Abdelhamid Bouchnak)

TUNIS - With his first film, “Dachra,” receiving critical acclaim and earning commercial success, Abdelhamid Bouchnak has established himself in Tunisia as a remarkable voice of his generation.

Bouchnak also imposed his style in his first feature film, a horror story set in Tunisia, allowing movie buffs to enjoy a Tunisian spin on the genre.

Bouchnak said the inspiration for “Dachra” came from childhood memories. The same source of inspiration drove his passion for folk music, as expressed in his recently- aired television series “Nouba.”

In the folk-music based soap opera “Nouba,” (“Mystic Trance”), Bouchnak departed from exploring the traditions of Tunisian scary tales and instead turned to Mezwed music as a popular artistic expression previously frowned upon as the antithesis of high-brow culture.

“‘Nouba’ was originally a film script before being turned into a TV series. The story is about love, music and vengeance. It talks about love, essentially a young man who discovers his love for music, romantic love and also love of himself. It is about universal values and love in its general life,” Bouchnak said.

“Having the series set in the ’90s is an ode to a period in Tunisia during which everything seemed simple. Things were subtle and simple. It is about those humanistic values.”

Bouchnak’s series was a hit in Tunisia, where there is increasing appeal for Mezwed as younger people from various social classes begin showing appreciation for such shows in modern venues.

The series tells the story of a young man from a middle-class neighbourhood who is arrested after a fight and is sent to prison where he discovers Mezwed, especially its lyrics of pain and nostalgia, originating from inmates. His mentor teaches him the values of a type of music that was often underestimated and marginalised as a low-class expression.

“During the rule of (Habib) Bourguiba, Mezwed was censored and banned from national radio and television. Members of government would invite the icons of Mezwed to their personal celebrations but not officially,” Bouchnak said.

“Mezwed is the music of revolt, of the working class. The elite of the country didn’t think of it as noble music.”

In 1991, the Carthage Amphitheatre was the site of a solidly packed show titled “Nouba” and dedicated to Mezwed and Tunisian folk music.

Theatre director Fadhel Jaziri and Mezwed musician Samir Agrebi helped include the genre in the Tunisian musical patrimony after it had long been considered too vulgar. Many renowned Tunisian musicians, even of classical background, participated in the show.

“In the ‘90s, I attended the first show of ‘Nouba,’ which brought together all these singers with other icons of Tunisian music. They are true and real artists who chose this music and not by obligation. The 1991 concert of ‘Nouba’ introduced popular music by Samir Agrebi, Fadhel Jaziri and featured my father, who is a singer and musician of classical music. These memories inspired my TV series,” Bouchnak said.

“I saw all these iconic singers and dancers of this folk and popular music that is often marginalised. They were impressive and it influenced me greatly to bring them to my art.”

Bouchnak explained that the musical instrument of Mezwed — a traditional bagpipe — from which the genre took its name, is unique.

“The instrument you hear is violent, aggressive. It resembles the Irish bagpipes but we kept it as it is raw and aggressive, made of goat’s skin. It is very rural and tribal and it is the dominant sound of Mezwed genre,” he said.

“We tried to fuse the music of Mezwed with other sounds to render it more modern and more eclectic. It is difficult to find an instrument that outshines the Mezwed. It transcends them. It is violent like the culture it comes from.”

Bouchnak said inspiration from childhood springs eternal. “The sincerest memories are those memories of childhood,” he said. “Even my film ‘Dachra’ was inspired by a childhood memory. It is a nod to the past with an air of nostalgia.”