Tunisia’s Rachidia showcases traditional music
Tunis - During the long days of Ramadan, the medina of Tunis takes on a serene mood. Movement is limited, alleys and shops are quiet and cafés are closed. After sunset, however, the area comes to life, with crowds of Tunisians flocking to the old city to enjoy Ramadan rituals.
Past the cafés scattered on the sides of the streets and into an old alley, music emanates from the corners of a house, guiding wanderers into the hall of the Rachidia, Tunisia’s first musical institution.
The Association of the Rachidia Institute of Tunisian Music is one of the medina’s most popular destinations during Ramadan, when it hosts daily concerts showcasing traditional Tunisian music. The concerts are popular with all age groups and provide Tunisians a chance to reconnect with their musical heritage.
Since its creation in 1934, Rachidia has played a crucial role in preserving and promoting Tunisian music.
“The Rachidia Institute was founded at a time when the musical scene was deteriorating,” said Hedi Mouhli, president of the Association of the Rachidia Institute of Tunisian Music. “Music back then was controlled by the coloniser. Since music is a vital component of identity, the French coloniser attempted to erase and destroy it so as to erase Tunisian identity.”
Mouhli said the institute’s name derives from Mohammed Rachid Bey, a member of the Husainid dynasty, who ruled Tunisia from 1756 until his death in 1759. “Since many opposed the creation of an association for Tunisian music, they borrowed the name… to protect themselves,” Mouhli said.
The Rachidia Institute has hosted many of Tunisia’s top musical icons, including Khemais Tarnen, Salah El Mahdi, Mohamed Triki, Mohamed Saada, Saliha and Tahar Gharsa. Today, the institute promotes Tunisian music, particularly Malouf music, through monthly concerts, music lessons and daily shows during Ramadan.
“The Rachidia Institute used to organise monthly concerts for Tunisian music in addition to providing music lessons but in the past years, it started developing its own projects to digitalise and document Tunisian music. It has also been working on launching branches in many other cities as the Rachidia aims to preserve Tunisian music,” Mouhli said. “The Rachidia Institute preserves Tunisian traditional music but also invites musicians to exchange Arab and international musical heritages,” he added.
“Our focus is Malouf music, which originated from many styles including Sufi music, Andalusian influences and Tunisian soul. The most important thing that occupies us is how Malouf music can be incorporated in musical shows that can be appealing to young people.”
While Rachidia entertains fans of the Malouf style with monthly concerts throughout the year, it treats medina-goers to daily music shows celebrating refined traditional music during Ramadan. Mouhli also said Rachidia has taken a pivotal role in reviving interest in the medina, which its inhabitants previously deserted for the city’s newer neighbourhoods.
“It was almost empty,” Mouhli said, “There was a group of intellectuals who realised that the medina could only be brought back through reviving the cultural life of the city. Only culture can bring back the city and bring back its visitors and inhabitants.”
He added: “The Rachidia Institute was one of the institutions responsible for the cultural revival of the town. In this sense, we decided to create a special programme for Ramadan. The idea is to revive the old city within the cultural centres and outside. We also encourage personal initiatives from people who want to introduce the heritage of their regions.”
Hosted in a traditional house in the Medina, the Rachidia is perfectly positioned to connect with the medina’s cultural heritage.
“The cultural revival of the medina helped (the city’s) economic life by bringing energy and vitality to the old town of Tunis…,” Mouhli said, “The goal is to safeguard the artistic taste, familiarise the architectural treasures of the old city, improve the economy and ultimately bring back the value of the old city.”
The institute hosts hundreds of visitors who sip tea and sing along to traditional music during Ramadan concerts. It is an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the beauty of the medina and for locals to reconnect with their heritage.
“There is always a bridge between the past and the present,” said Mouhli, noting that the institution was equipped to host modern music. “The idea is that these buildings attract young Tunisians. All these corners of the medina have a certain appeal to them. Tunisians should come and enjoy the medina for what it really is.”
With gigantic chandeliers hanging from carved, glass-decorated ceilings and tile-woven floor, the Rachidia building is a testament to the wealth and beauty of Tunisian architecture.
“These concerts around here in the medina are unique,” said Mouhli. “What we have in the medina is not folklore but it is about returning to our roots and show the real old Tunisian art stripped of all the elements that destroyed its authenticity.
“This is what marks Ramadan in the medina. What unites people here in the medina during the month is their love for tradition.”