Dynamic Acoustic Duo Ÿuma Allies with Tunisia and Derja

21 November, 2022

 

Melissa Chemam

 

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.

 

Melissa Chemam is a cultural journalist, lecturer, and the author of a book on Bristol’s music scene, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone. A TMR contributing editor, she writes a monthly music column in which she explores Arab music and the greater Middle East, and how they influence music production around the world. She tweets @melissachemam.

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