Tunisia celebrates Sufi female music in Ramadan festival

More than 20 musicians, singers and dancers participated in the first all-female Sufi programme in the Arab world.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Tunisian maestro Amina Srarfi (C) and her musical ensemble El’Azifat perform during the 37th Medina Festival in Tunis. (Medina Festival)
A savvy mixture of styles. Tunisian maestro Amina Srarfi (C) and her musical ensemble El’Azifat perform during the 37th Medina Festival in Tunis. (Medina Festival)

TUNIS - Tunisian maestro Amina Srarfi and her musical ensemble El’Azifat opened the 37th Medina Festival in Tunis with “Lella.”

More than 20 musicians, singers and dancers participated in the first all-female Sufi programme in the Arab world, which celebrated Tunisia’s female saints from north to south.

“Lella” (“My Lady”) was directed by Hafedh Khalifa and choreographed by Khira Oubeidallah. Srarfi arranged and supervised the score. The performers, including 70-year-old hymn singer Mamiya Karoui, were chosen from Tunis, Djerba, Bizerte and Sousse.

“’Lella’ was a show by women for women, that is to say, from today’s Tunisian women to yesterday’s Tunisian female Sufi saints,” Srarfi said. “It’s a celebration of the virtues of Lella Saida Manoubia, Lella Arbia, Oum Ezzine al-Jammalia and other venerated female Sufi saints whose legacies have been preserved in the popular poetic tradition in Tunisia.”

Srarfi said the idea of the show came when she “found in the archives of my late father a prayer in the praise of the Prophet Mohammad that included 43 names of the Prophet and which was put to music by my late husband, Faisal Karoui (a saxophone player).

“I immediately got the idea of having the praise piece recited by an all-female choir accompanied by an all-female orchestra. Hence, the ‘Lella’ show in the praise of Tunisia’s Sufi female saints from north to south,” she said.

Lella Saida Manoubia is perhaps the most famous female Sufi saint in Tunisia. She died seven centuries ago but her generosity and strength are still celebrated in popular songs. She was sanctified after her death and a mausoleum was built around her tomb in northern Tunis.

Between choreographed dances and scenes, actress Leila Chebbi read highly stylised texts detailing the history and stories of Saida Manoubia and other female saints.

Tunisian singer Nabiha Karaouli performed an original rendition of “Hadhrat al-Shdala,” a hymn dedicated to Saint Sidi Abdelkader al-Shadly and usually performed by male singers.

Karaouli’s performance was far removed from the typical male style in hymns to male saints. She imbued her rendition with a deep feminine spirit that was met with a standing ovation and sustained ululations of approval from women in the audience.

“Lella” included a savvy mixture of Sufi music and a variety of other Tunisian celebratory styles, such as popular bagpipe music, the African stambali and the Andalusian Malouf. There were performances by the El’Azifat choir as well as individual singing performances by Chahnaz Dhaoui, Nisreen al-Frei and Soumaya Mersni.

Srarfi said she hoped “Lella” becomes the nucleus for more ambitious and more comprehensive projects celebrating Tunisia’s Sufi saints, including male ones, by female artists that help preserve Tunisian heritage.

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