The artists’ colony at Sidi Bou Said — a northern Tunisian town — has become a favorite destination for foreign tourists in Tunisia. The narrow, winding streets with their white Andalusian-style houses, the fiery red cascades of bougainvilleas tumbling over the walls, and the magnificent sea views all combine to draw visitors from far and wide. Few of these visitors are aware, however, that Sidi Bou Said is also home to one of the most exciting cultural projects in the entire Mediterranean region.
The Tunisian Ministry of Culture has provided a home for the Center of Arab and Mediterranean Music (CMAM) in the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace (an Arabic phrase meaning Star of Venus), the spacious and beautifully restored former residence of French painter and musicologist Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, who died in 1932.
The CMAM conducts a variety of programs, including promoting musical events, and housing a collection of Tunisian music and the National Sound Archive, which conserves and disseminates Tunisian and Arab musical documents, making them available to researchers who study music. It also ensures the preservation of the artistic and musicological heritage of D’Erlanger, while doubling as a museum and a venue for concerts.
And, if that were not enough, the CMAM has become one of the most important and dynamic facilitators of musical and cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. "For young Western musicians who participate in our workshops, the first encounter with Arab music is often like a revelation," explains Mounir Hentati, head of communications and Deputy Director of the CMAM, and "[t]he participants from Tunisia value the opportunity to study jazz or classical music first-hand."
If the builder of the palace only knew, he would surely be delighted. D’Erlanger, who lived in Sidi Bou Said from 1910 until his death, helped create a greater understanding between East and West. He was also a key figure in the planning of the first Arab Music Conference in Cairo in 1932.
D’Erlanger’s great motivation in moving to Tunisia was the desire to revive Andalusian-Arab civilization. The Ennejma Ezzahra Palace was the base for this project. The painter studied the great buildings of Andalusian traditions and, in the old city of Tunis, he made detailed drawings of entire buildings. From this, he created his own version of Al-Andalus: an Arabian palace, with Arab-, Italian- and British-influenced interiors that straddled both Eastern and Western cultures.
In 1989 the Tunisian government purchased the palace and declared it a national monument. Well-known Tunisian artists, including the world famous lutenist Anwar Brahem and the Tunisian poet and painter Ali Louati, lent their support to ensure that the center would become not only a museum, but also a multi-disciplinary, dynamic project.
The oldest exhibits on display in the National Sound Archive were collected by the German ethnomusicologist Paul Träger, who recorded Tunisian folk songs in 1903. "I came across these recordings on a visit to the Berlin Phonogram Archive," explains Hentati, who is desperately keen to have more funding for musicological research. "During my visit to Berlin I discovered that, during the First World War, German researchers had recorded the lyrics, melodies and rhythms of songs sung by Tunisian prisoners of war."
German-language work has been done using some of the findings of this research. In Tunisia, on the other hand, almost nothing is known about either the interviews or the accompanying collected material.
The CMAM’s musical concept has changed over the years. "In the early years, we concentrated on our own traditional music productions," says Hentati. Now the focus has shifted towards international exchange with public concerts and master classes. Every year, jazz soloists from Belgium and Tunisia, as well as other countries, come together for an event entitled "Colors."
Thanks to French support, another event, "Young Virtuosos," brings together young classical instrumentalists to CMAM for a musical presentation. And world music ensembles from all five continents participate in CMAM’s "Music" series, which is dedicated to Tunisian music.
"I hope that this center will help encourage not only exchange between the Arab world and Europe but with the whole world," said Brahem at the opening of CMAM. Apparently, some dreams really do come true!
Martina Sabra is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de. The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.