Stambeli: The sound of African music in Tunisia

Friday 05/06/2015
Photo: Hassen Dridi

Tunis - The sounds of the drums grew louder as a crowd of men and women play­ing music and chanting entered the narrow al­ley leading to the shrine of Sidi Ali Lasmar. Waving coloured flags, the crowd held a ceremony during which a black goat was sacrificed.

Once settled in the house, the stambeli musicians begin to play as attendees fell into a trance that lasted till the next morning. The first chant dedicated to praise of the Prophet.

This ritual, called Al Chaabania, is a stambeli celebration that became an attraction not to just the seekers of the blessings of Sidi Ali Lasmar but also those who are drawn to the spiritual and musical fervour that stambeli music offers.

Stambeli is a musical genre as­sociated with Tunisia’s black com­munity and relates to the ancestral memory of those who were dis­placed and enslaved. The com­munity’s heritage was preserved through the music, the chants and the dance.

Stambeli music arrived in Tu­nisia with sub-Saharan Africans who came north through slavery, migration, or trade. These settlers, though coming from different re­gions, shared a similar heritage.

“Stambeli music came into Tuni­sia with the migration movement of tribes coming from sub-Saharan Af­rica and countries like Nigeria and Chad back in the 18th century,” said Mounir Hentati, consultant at the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music.

“African tribes reached Tunisia through caravans of trade. Some came from Timbuktu, from Mali, from Nigeria, even from Chad. For instance, the Barnou family in Tu­nisia comes from there,” said Salah el Ouergli, a stambeli musician.

“They explored different regions then settled in Tunisia. In doing so, they brought along with them the language, the rituals and the music of their ancestors. They introduced the desert music in the use of the gombri instrument.”

El Ouergli is a master of gombri, a stringed instrument and one of the most important in stambeli music. He acquired the status of yenna — master — after years of learning from the best gombri players in Tu­nisia, most of them now dead.

Stambeli is conceived of as both a healing and a religious practice. It combines music, dance and chants in trance-like performances often dedicated to religious occasions. There are different views on how it got its name.

“It is hard to find an exact ver­sion. Some say it was named ‘stam­beli’ after Istanbul to praise the Bey who gave the authorisation to these rites. Others say it is connected to language of the tribes,” Hentati said.

Stambeli also contains elements of pre-Islamic West African animism.

“Stambeli is primarily a practice of animism, which believes in spir­its. When African tribes came to Tunisia, they had to adapt to the Muslim faith and tried to combine both,” Hentati said.

“Although stambeli was adjusted to the Muslim context, it still has elements of the old beliefs in good and bad spirits. Some rituals and dances are dedicated to conjure up good spirits for their blessings. Oth­ers are meant to drive evil spirits away for the protection of people from their possession,” Hentati ex­plained.

“For many women, stambeli shows are the only opportunities to let go, dance and to feel emanci­pated in terms of body and soul. It becomes a form of healing through music,” he said.

Stambeli today is only performed in a few places. One of them is the shrine of Sidi Ali Lasmar, which continues to resist the neglect of memory and heritage. Situated in the medina, the shrine is named after a black saint who lived in that part of Tunis. “Till today, all the black community in Tunisia gath­ered in the shrine twice a year: dur­ing the month that precedes Rama­dan and during the Mouled. These houses used to be located at the outskirts of the old medina so that the music and the rituals do not dis­turb the people,” said Riad Zaouech, a gombri musician and guardian of the shrine of Sidi Ali Lasmar.

“This shrine was not revived until the end of (former president Habib) Bourguiba’s rule (in 1987). They used to celebrate religious oc­casions like most of the Sufi orders. The African influence on the music of stambeli shows in the rhythm and the themes such as heritage of ancestors and love of mother nature and the land.”

Stambeli musicians also seek to ensure its continuity by experi­menting with new musical genres. El Ouergli is working on introducing Western instruments to stambeli music to create a fusion.

“I have noticed over the last years that more and more youth became interested in stambeli music and started attending the few shows that are still performed. This in­spired me to bring a new spirit to stambeli by adding Western instru­ments and influences,” El Ouergli said.

“It is the heritage that could en­lighten the country and represent Tunisians in the world,” he said. “Stambeli has beautiful elements that could achieve more. To be able to play and enjoy stambeli, you need to be passionate and to fully embrace it.”