Paris has been something of a sleeping beauty for the past year. Several Covid-imposed lockdowns brought the bustling culture, gastronomy, and shopping delights to a halt. Wednesday night, however, a week after boutiques reopened, restaurants flung open their doors and the concert stages were once again under the spotlights. Arriving with intension, Tunisian singer Emel swept across the stage in a glistening Sandra Mansour red couture dress to perform at the Arab World Institute as part of Arabfolies, a music festival of art and ideas. Having given birth to her second child, son Zola, mere weeks ago, the singer never put aside her passion, continuing to work and create up until his birth.
If Emel confessed to “not having felt 100% ready, due to not performing for nine months” nothing about her performance hinted as such. With a voice, clear as glass, and as if carried by wind over waves, Emel serenaded the full house with songs including her beloved compositions Holm and Kelmti Horra along with others chosen from across her various albums that spoke of sadness, grief, violence, nostalgia, and hope.
How did it feel to perform after almost a year-long Covid-imposed hiatus?
Even though I didn’t feel entirely ready, when I am on stage, the adrenaline is incredible. Though I like to see and meet people afterwards, I could feel that I needed to sit down and collect myself after the show.
Along with covers like The Cranberries’ Warchild and David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World you sang many of your own compositions that also speak to deep issues like war and displacement.
When I first started, I didn’t initially want to write my own songs. Then, when I started singing, I realized that I could use my gift to help shift injustices.
What pressure do you feel as an artist and how do you deal with it?
I think that now there is a lot of pressure on artists. They have to do their job, create their art, but also manage their image, communication, generate money, and create a buzz all the time. Fill the hall. The artist has to do everything. She must always be at her best and change hats constantly. I think that’s a bit violent. And now, especially after the pandemic, we have to defend our place. We are often put in competition not just with ourselves but with others. It’s not healthy and we don’t have time to build a fraternity with our fellow artists. And then of course, when something goes wrong, it’s on the artist, and when she says something, she’s wrong. The system profits off of all of this.
Regardless of these challenges, you are going from strength to strength. What concerts can we expect in the coming year, the quelling of the pandemic permitting?
In the immediate, this Monday I’m doing a concert in Paris for Sudan. And on June 30th, I’m doing a concert at l’Olympia for children of war. I’m happy to work with other artists towards an actual cause. For me, it’s more important than ever to consider my fellow singers as my community. I will perform my new double album The Tunis Diaries across Europe and Egypt through the fall and then in November, I will head to Japan with my musicians for 20 concerts across the country.
Have you thought about your stage dresses?
I have always been very spoiled by Azzedine Alaïa, who would dress me in several of his pieces for my concerts. He would choose dresses that moved beautifully because he knew how much I like to move and twirl on stage. And of course, they travel so well. But I was very happy to wear Sandra Mansour, and I would like to continue to explore women designers from the region in the future.