There's a surprisingly wide variety of pretty decent music coming from Tunisia. You sort of assume that they're going to 'world music' really well, and a lot of ethno-hippies will be very happy smoking their shishas along to some random bazaar music. And when you get some enterprising soul (who's obviously on some sort of commission) attacking Wikipedia bigging up the local alt scene, a sceptical tendency can creep in.
But there's some good stuff on there. While the fan/scene sites are in French that I don't have the energy to translate on this hot, hot night, they look well-produced and engaging enough, obviously keen enough on a vibrant scene to put some serious effort into it. Check out the TuniZika blog, Tunizik.com, which is a supportive network for hosting and creating websites and promoting acts, and rock/metal fansites like HarDoos, SceneMetal and Zanzana.
There are three acts on said Wiki though, that are mentioned by name. Neshez I find fairly uninspiring, but ZeMeKen and checkpoint303 offer something a bit interesting.
ZeMeKen seem the more jovial of the pair - with a Tunisian world cup enthusiast on their front page, they offer up an acoustic pop-rock sound, but one which is very much rooted in it's Tunisian roots, with guitars jostling with the very percussive and expressive drum sound you'll find in raï music and the like. It's a very evocative sound, one which is familiar and yet new at the same time.
ZeMeKen - Jweb Fi Dabouza (a cover of Gordon Sting's Message In A Bottle, in the Tunisian Arabic dialect)
ZeMeKen - Cope Di Monde (World Cup song! It's almost too appropriate. It sounds achingly familiar but I can't place it, so if anyone wants to listen and help me out, please do...)
Checkpoint303 are an entirely more serious prospect, billing themselves as "new tunes from occupied territories," which strikes as somewhat over-exaggerating the point: Tunisia is still comparatively liberal compared to many of it's North African neighbours, and technically constitutionally-based, although the degree to which this is true might be debatable. The group is a duo consisting of Tunisian producer (or "sound cutter," if you will) SC MoCha and "sound catcher" (I know, awesome right?) SC Yosh from the wonderfully Little Donkey-ish Bethlehem.
It looks, therefore, as if when they say occupied territories, they're not referring to Tunisia at all - in fact, the Tunisian element, SC MoCha, is actually based in gay Paris, where he manipulates ("cuts," if you will) the found sound recorded in Palestine and Israel by Yosh.
You can download a number of checkpoint303 tracks on their website, with stories and details of the recordings - for example, Hawiya Dhay'a (which translates as "lost identity") was taken from a recording at a West Bank rally in 2005, using the megaphone announcement that an id card and drivers licence were reported as a metaphorical description of the event (there's a lost id, you see where this is going...). Rissala min Qalandia (letter from Qalandia) is a tape of the Arab poet Nizar Qabbani (who died in 1998) reading one of his most famous poems, interspersed with repetitive acoustic riffs and even subtly-processed feedback.
It's a very interesting concept, and one that throws up some interesting musical ideas as well. It's certainly palatable to Western ears, but the overt political overtones may well be their barrier to commercial success.
Checkpoint303 - Hawiya Dhay'a
Checkpoint303 - Rissala min Qalandia
Last but not least is one of Tunisia's bigger musical stars, MC Raï. Raï (from the arabic word for opinion) is a fairly old, specifically Algerian genre, but one which is still perpetuated by modern artists such as this one. It's biggest star was Cheb Khaled, who has now moved aside and allowed new artists to break through. MC Raï appears to be one of the most up-and-coming, and his album Raïvolution has just been released. It's an interesting, more traditionally North African sound (although tell that to the Islamic fundamentalists who have murdered at least one artist and threaten the others with death), and one certainly worth a mention.
MC Raï - Rana Ca Va
Buy Tunisian music here
Buy MC Rai/(it's difficult to find a link to buy Checkpoint303 or ZeMeKen music, but what's given away here is free on their website...)
Tags: Tunisia; World Cup; electronica; Sting; Checkpoint303; raï;
CIA Factbook: Tunisia
Photo from WorldCupBlog.org