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Ghalia Benali by John Pareles/ the NY Times.US


The Sounds of Tunisia, Mixed With the World’s
Ghalia Benali at French Institute Alliance Française




“… At the institute’s auditorium, Ghalia Benali performed songs that were rooted in Tunisia but that could float east or west. Then, at the meatpacking district club Catch, disc jockeys from the Waveform collective in Tunis wielded laptops and mixers in music that moved from molten and experimental to crisply propulsive.


Ms. Benali is a maker of her own myths: songwriter, singer, dancer, visual artist. She was born in Brussels, grew up in Tunisia and returned to Belgium at 19 to study graphic design; she regularly visits Tunisia and performs around the Arabic world.
Her lyrics, she said with a smile, are “all about love”: yearning, desperate, ardent, transcendent. Ms. Benali is a self-taught singer, steeped in Tunisian and Middle Eastern music but not formally trained. Her voice is a nuanced, passionate alto, capable of intricate inflections and earthy vigor. Her melodies reach back to the hearty simplicity of folk songs; she uses the modes of Arabic classical music, but at times her improvisations also hint at raga, Japanese music and Tibetan overtone singing.


Jazz and experimental musicians backed her on Wednesday: Alex Waterman on cello; Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola; John Hadfield on percussion; Stomu Takeishi on bass; and Ned Rothenberg on clarinet, bass clarinet and shakuhachi (Japanese wooden flute).
They could supply Middle Eastern rhythms and drones, with viola or clarinet answering Ms. Benali’s vocal lines, or they could head elsewhere: toward chamber music, flamenco or jazz. Turning Western exoticism back on itself, Ms. Benali had two songs threaded through with jazz standards as countermelodies: “Caravan” and “A Night in Tunisia.”

Ms. Benali arrived onstage on Wednesday in a glittering white hoop skirt and tall, feathered hat that were part of one of her larger theater pieces, “Romeo and Leila,” which she has performed in Europe and the Middle East and recorded as an album: a fairy tale parable about love, otherness and self-discovery. That dress came off to reveal a modern black outfit underneath. Through her set, she danced and gestured her songs: distraught, flirtatious, exultant. But the music could easily have stood alone; her voice made every phrase taut and glowing.





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