Tunisia’s Dying Jazz
New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
To watch Chedli Bidali do his thing is an unforgettable experience. Hunched over his gumbri, a traditional three-stringed lute, the 52-year-old musician weaves together a rich, pulsing texture of sound that casts a hypnotic spell over the listener. A Bidali concert is no ordinary performance — not least because his music comes from a culture that may not be around much longer.
Bidali is one of the last living practitioners of stambeli, a uniquely Tunisian hybrid of musical genre, healing practice, and religious ceremony. It’s deeply rooted in the history of a specific community: the descendants of slaves brought to the region from sub-Saharan Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also has close links to Sufism, an ancient form of Islamic mysticism that uses music, dance, and rhythm to induce trance-like states that are supposed to bring listeners closer to the essence of the divine.
Stambeli’s beauty has brought it many fans across the world. But the people who embody it haven’t always fared well. Many of them are dark-skinned, ethnically distinct from Tunisia’s majority Arabs, and they’ve struggled with a long history of discrimination and persecution. President Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first postcolonial leader, gave state support to many forms of art, but stambeli wasn’t among them; it didn’t fit the modern image of the country he was trying to shape.
Tunisia’s 2011 revolution has opened up a new era of freedom for the country’s artists. But this also led to new tensions as Tunisians with different cultural and religious identities confronted one another in the public sphere for the first time. At the high point of these clashes in 2012, some Salafists — ultraconservative Muslims who try to emulate the social norms prevalent during the era of Prophet Mohammed — harassed artists they saw as heretics, sending death threats and vandalizing their work. Violent Salafists even burned down Islamic shrines they viewed as idolatrous. But while subsequent police crackdowns have landed Salafists of all stripes in jail, some of the trends they promoted, such as moral self-policing and austere interpretations of Islamic cultural heritage, have taken root in society. With its unorthodox religious associations, stambeli has found itself in the firing line.
A stambeli troupe is led by a yinnah, who plays the lute while leading the other performers in a ceremonial chant. He is accompanied by about six percussion players using metal castanets. There is also always an arifah — a dance master with divinatory powers — who can be either a man or woman. Ceremonies are often performed with the aim of healing, invoking the protection of spirits, saints, or genies. Conservative Muslims dismiss such practices as deviations from core religious teachings, and these days, because of the rising influence of orthodox interpretations of the faith, stambeli artists are careful to stress the monotheistic, Islamic essence of their practice.
Chedli Bidali, a man from one of the traditional stambeli community houses in the old city of Tunis, always wanted to be a yinnah. When he was a child, Bidali tried to learn how to play the gumbri from his father. But his father’s patience with him was always short, and it was an uncle who really nurtured Bidali’s dream. When Bidali played for the first time at the shrine of his community’s patron saint, Sidi Saad, his uncle was the one who played with him. His father stayed away.
“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be like my father. And I wanted to do the same thing as my grandfathers,” says Bidali. “I used to sleep in stambeli, wake up in stambeli. Even on our way to school I would go with my aunt and uncle and talk about stambeli.” Bidali eventually achieved his goal of leading a troupe, and after many years of performing he was finally able to win his father’s approval. But that achievement has proved bittersweet. Today he is one of only two troupe leaders from a traditional stambeli house in Tunis, nearly the last of a kind in a centuries-old tradition.
“I can’t transfer that knowledge to my son,” says Bidali, who says that his heir doesn’t seem very interested in maintaining the culture. Bidali worries that stambeli culture only has a few decades left.
The origins of stambeli music resemble those of American jazz (even though the two genres don’t sound alike). In both cases, the musical traditions of former slaves combined with the diverse cultural influences of their new environments to create something radically new. Whereas slaves arriving in Louisiana mixed their music and practices with European, Caribbean, and American ingredients, slaves arriving in Tunis during the same period fused their animist practices with North African versions of mystical Sufism and orthodox Islam. Mounir Argui, a theater director and music producer who works with Bidali, says that the metal castanets that play such a prominent role in stambeli performances evoke “the sounds of chains and shackles” that the slaves once wore, while the chanting recalls the “moaning.”
There are several understandable reasons for the community’s decline. Modern life means smaller families, and smaller families make it harder to sustain the group’s traditional practice of communal living, which often brought extended clans together in large, shared dwellings. Modern medicine has reduced the demand for the traditional healing practices that are associated with the tradition. And the Tunisian state never prioritized the preservation of stambeli, focusing instead on the art and culture it considered highbrow, according to Valeria Meneghelli, a researcher of North Africa’s cultural politics.
But there are also more sinister explanations. Many Tunisians see stambeli as an alien phenomenon associated with blacks, who are already widely viewed as not quite Tunisian. In post-revolutionary Tunisia, where asserting the Islamic character of the country has become an important political symbol for some, the pagan origins of stambeli also cause suspicion.
“People say all sorts of negative things,” says Argui. “They claim that stambeli is connected to voodoo and black magic, because these are Africans. We need to purify stambeli from these things and show that they have nothing to do with its real traditions.”
Argui is right to be worried. The Salafi-Wahhabi school of Islam so aggressively promoted by Saudi Arabia over the last three decades has shaped Tunisian religious sensibility in a way that is often hostile to non-dogmatic local practices. Before 2011, Tunisian authorities relentlessly suppressed Salafi tendencies, but since the revolution the ultraconservatives have enjoyed a renewed popularity, relative freedom from repression, and a strong political voice. Some of these Salafists have used their greater freedom to vandalize symbols of Sufi tradition, burning down shrines and sending death threats to artists whose work they deem blasphemous (though the shrines of stambeli’s patron saints were spared).
“In the places where people would play music, [Salafists] would harass them,” says Bidali. “They think we’re practicing idolatry when we mention saints.”
Even now that the authorities have begun to crack down on many Salafists in the course of the national counterterrorism campaign, Salafi attitudes continue to encourage skepticism towards heterodox Islamic practices. A recent report by Art Solution, a local nongovernmental organization that promotes Tunisian art, examines the threats to stambeli. The report finds some Tunisians have stopped inviting stambeli troupes to perform in their houses for fear of provoking a backlash from their neighbors or from radical Islamists. According to the report, many of those who have gone ahead with the ceremonies have kept them secret.
It doesn’t make it easier that stambeli is a strictly oral tradition, taught through a lifetime of immersion among family members who are all initiated into its mysteries. The musicians have no formal instrumental training, and each performance is unique. “If you ask one of them to repeat what they just did, they can’t,” says Meneghelli.
This has made it difficult to teach the practice to outsiders. It is also against the interest of existing troupes to teach stambeli to others, since this might mean empowering new competitors in a shrinking market.
The ceremonial healing practices of stambeli have largely vanished. The music and dance remain, and the question of how to keep them alive is becoming increasingly urgent. Art Solution has proposed that the Tunisian government provide stambeli with more funding and inclusion in official cultural events. That might open up channels for help from abroad, perhaps under the rubric of UNESCO’s framework for “safeguarding intangible cultural heritage.”
But it remains to be seen if the Tunisian government, or Tunisian society, will take heed. As long as some Tunisians continue to see freedom of religion and freedom of art as mutually exclusive, the rare traditions like stambeli that manage to straddle both will find little space. It would be ironic indeed if the greater freedoms Tunisians won in their 2011 revolution accelerated the death of one of the country’s most unique cultural treasures.
Photo credit: ACHREF LEMMOUCHI
Correction, August 19, 2016: Chedli Bidali is one of only two stambeli troupe leaders associated with a traditional stambeli house in Tunis — not one of the last two in the entire country, as the story initially said.
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