If you haven’t yet discovered this tantalizing Tunisian duo, Ÿuma consists of Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlami, two voices and a guitar — a “minimalist folk universe,” as they describe it, in contrast with today’s Arab urban productions. Their music sounds wonderfully authentic, sensitive and refreshing. Ÿuma is now in its seventh year, and has produced three albums. The multidisciplinary artists have been touring Europe since summer 2022. In September, they performed at the Festival Arabesques, in Montpellier, France, where TMR contributor Angélique Crux reported on their concert.
Sabrine is a trained plastic artist, a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts in Tunis, who gravitated to singing as a teenager. Ramy is a guitarist and vocalist who played in Tunisian rock bands before working as a screenwriter and filmmaker, later circling back to music.
Hearing a recording of their performance, I fell for their warm sounds, nostalgic feel and touching voices, in service of rediscovering the charms of singing in their local language, Tunisian Arabic, also known as Tounsie or Derja. To learn more about their journey and the meaning of their musical explorations, I decided to speak to Sabrine.
“Ramy and I met in 2013 and took two years to put our project together,” she says. “We are self-taught in music and work independently. We started by performing covers of songs we love, a mix of western oriental tracks, from the Lebanese legend Fairouz to Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra. This later influenced our music, combining all the memories from our different influences, from blues music, rock, jazz, Arab music, etc. Then we were ready to compose our first album, Chura, released in 2016, and self-produced.”
Two years later, the duo produced a second record, Poussière d’Etoiles (Stardust), working with a label situated in Brittany, France. As a result, they were invited to perform in Europe, including at the Festival Arabesques for the first time in 2018.
In the press kit for their third album, Hannet Lekloub, Sabrine and Ramy explain that the name Ÿuma comes from the Cherokee language. When they first began talking, they remember that “at the time, we were seduced by the Native American culture, native sounds, minimalist sounds. Ÿuma means ally.” A little more than ten years after the revolution that rid Tunisia of dictator Ben Ali, they say that, “Ÿuma reminds us that Tunisia was a pioneer country of Arab modernity and resistance. Turning to the Middle East, and in particular to Egypt, Tunisia developed a leading role in the renovation of the Arab music repertoire, particularly within the Rachidia, a group of Tunisian artists created in 1934 to counter the cultural assaults of colonization, an act then militant.”
About Hannet Lekloub, Sabrine explains, “The album is about the ease of being romantic, or not. How to evolve in a country that is not stable at all? Tunisia is a country of dreamers, and here we are focused on one goal: how to fill the fridge. So many things have happened, we have distanced ourselves. Corruption, fundamentalism, poverty, contempt for the people…We’ve hit rock bottom,” adds Sabrine. “We can only go up.”
In Ÿuma, Sabrine and Ramy want to remain artistic equals, and they combine their different strengths. They both compose music and lyrics, and chose to write in the Tunisian dialect. They keep their arrangements minimal, getting rid of their first trials in electronically experimentation, to compose around the melody and just a guitar. More often than not, Ramy joins her on vocals.
“I started singing when I was 14,” Sabrine says. “I had a band in high school, mostly for fun. We were fans of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Alanis Morissette. I had other bands at 17 and 18; we carried on singing in clubs for ten years, so I forged my voice on stage, I didn’t have professional training. When I met Ramy, I had already started writing songs. But meeting him changed my level of commitment. I don’t play any instrument; I studied art and worked as a cultural journalist professionally for three years. That’s how I got to observe the cultural scene in Tunisia. And in my view, it’s lacking structure; the music industry is not professional enough. But talent is everywhere. And that’s also what led us to write and sing in Derja and not classical Arabic. We had that desire to bring back something that was missing. The language is spoken everywhere in the streets but is not in our books or our education. We wanted to start changing this.”
What drives Sabrine and Ramy in their lyrics is both the daily life of their fellow citizens and the poetical potential of Derja. “It wasn’t easy at first,” she confesses, “but then it started feeling like a new recipe for a good cake, the more you bake it, the better it gets! We went to theatre festivals, listened to old adages, anecdotes from our grandmothers, and we started going on a quest for forgotten words…When we’re on the road, touring, we sometimes write down different expressions from the different regions of the country. Each one has its own accents, and influences from different languages and dialects, from Arabic to Berber languages. Tunisian is a language in constant evolution.”
Sabrine and Ramy wanted all these accents, words, metaphors and stories to be heard in their music. For them, it’s like a fight for authenticity and as well as freedom. Both artists grew up under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, an era that hampered self-expression and cultural diversity.
“I’m 36 years old. I lived mostly under Ben Ali,” says Sabrine. “I saw much injustice, but I also lived with the hope to see the dictatorship end one day. Then I lived through the thrill of the revolution and the disappointment of witnessing another dictatorship come about…Yet, we all need hope, still. What our music also says is that no one has confiscated our freedom of expression.”
Sabrine believes that Tunisians are used to resistance. “These times have tried to erase many traces of our diverse culture, the popular songs and tales, the Berber heritage,” she explains. “But they are still alive. And in the whole of the Maghreb, we are moving forward, in the direction of liberating these parts of our identity, especially in terms of the creativity in music. I hear it in Morocco and Algeria, too. In Tunisia, it is very strong on the rap scene, even if other music styles have been slower to get there. Our people shouldn’t have to live under one simplified identity. We are a very diverse people. And young people want to express that. Since the revolution, some platforms have helped, like YouTube; it brought us closer to the rest of the world. We’ve been witnessing an explosion of creativity since 2014.”
As inspiring examples, we cannot help but mention the singer Emel Mathlouthi, now world-renowned, and Sabrine also thinks of her friend Jawhar (b. Jawhar Basti in Tunis), who started performing even before Emel and particularly influenced Sabrine. “It’s thanks to him that I really believed in the Tunisian language as the right vehicle for our creativity,” she says. Jawhar grew up in the southern suburbs of Tunis, and at the age of 20 left for France to study English literature and theatre, before settling in Brussels, where he’s been working as a musician, actor and playwright, but also, as he puts it on his website, “as a citizen artist.” Jawhar now divides his time between Belgium and Tunisia.
Ÿuma has been touring since 2021, traveling back and forth from Tunisia to Europe. At the moment, they are back in creative mode, focusing on writing new music, and are spending time in Tunis for inspiration. I find their music deeply soulful and inspiring. I hope you’ll manage to catch them on the road.