Tunisia’s Electronic Waves

Tunisian DJ Cløtur perfoms at WAX Bar in the Gammarth suburb of Tunis on July 13, 2019. Photo by William Edwards.

For the DJ Shinigami San, electronic music resonates with a kind of material weight that’s perfect for bringing people back to the real world, away from the digital world of phones and screens.

“All the links and interactions that we have are becoming virtual. With this you have a dematerialization of the body,” San told Meshkal in July. “People need more physicality and one of the ways to have it is through electronic music… when these [low] frequencies vibrate, the body vibrates with it, and you gain consciousness of the physicality of your body.”

Electronic music has seen rapid growth in the last decade. Worldwide, the industry was worth $7.3 billion in 2018 compared to $4.5 billion in 2012, according to a report from the International Music Summit.

Tunisia is no exception. However, specialists say the recent growth of electronic music in Tunisia isn’t only part of a larger global trend but is also related to some of the bigger social and political changes that followed the 2011 uprising.

A Rave in the Desert

When the first “Electronic Dunes” festival was held in the desert near the city of Nefta in Tunisia’s south in 2014, some organizers tried to frame it as a celebration of Tunisia’s relatively peaceful political transition following the 2011 uprising, according to Stefano Barone, a sociologist at the University of Central Lancashire who recently published a book about metal, rap, and electronic music in post-revolution Tunisia.

Amel Karboul, the Tourism Minister at the time, “made a speech at the beginning of the festival saying, ‘Now it’s time to celebrate. Tunisia is a place where you can have fun. We [busted] the back of the dictatorship…and now it’s time to have fun’,” Barone told Meshkal, summarizing her speech.

The third edition of the Electronic Dunes festival returns this September 21 after a several year break. Organizers are advertising it as a “30-hour rave” in the desert with “30 of the best acts from Tunisia and the global underground electronic music scene.”

The celebration of electronic music and political change also came with a tourism strategy.

“Who is here in the south for the first time?” Karboul asked at the opening of the first festival in 2014, a question that the audience responded to with cheers in a video shared online.

While Tunisia’s interior and southern regions have lots of natural resources and beauty, they have traditionally received less investment than coastal regions, including in tourism. Many in interior regions see themselves as marginalized by an exploitative, discriminatory, and unfair governing system.

At the festival, Karboul’s was highlighting the “south” as a tourism destination in front of an audience that included many Tunisians from wealthier coastal regions who could afford the relatively expensive tickets. She was also promoting cultural and domestic tourism—a contrast to the fragile model of mass, all-inclusive beach packages for foreigners on which Tunisia has historically relied.

“Who will come again to the south?” she followed up, again to cheers, before passing the microphone to the then Minister of Culture Mourad Sakli. At that time, Tunisia’s tourism sector had not recovered since the 2011 uprising, and even today the sector is still working to recover lost ground.

A Growing Scene After 2011

The electronic music that brought people from Tunisia’s coasts and abroad to sand dunes in Tunisia’s south reflected the growing popularity of the scene. The genre’s popularity has increased—at least in part—as a result of the 2011 uprising, according to Barone and several people that Meshkal interviewed.

Some think political liberalization coincided with the liberation of the music scene.

“In 2008 or 2009, we started playing dubstep, and during this period it was impossible in the mind of the people that this music would have space,” Shinigami San said.

Shinigami San is the stage name of Tunisian musician and multidisciplinary artist Zied Meddeb Hamrouni from Gabes. San wears his head shaved and dresses all in black—a look that fits his DJ name which roughly translates from Japanese to “Mr. God of Death.”

“Mentally, people – from my point of view – saw something change [after the uprising] and [there were new possibilities]. So, we can be different, we can listen to different music. So it was three years almost after [we founded our collective] that it got really, really liberated, the music.”

Another way the uprising may have helped spur the growth of the scene is that rules and regulations concerning which businesses can obtain alcohol licenses—or at least the application of those rules—loosened up slightly, according to Khalil, a former manager of a popular Tunis nightclub.

Khalil, not his real name, spoke to Meshkal on condition of anonymity for a reason that points to one of the continuing challenges to the clubs and nightlife in general where electronic music is popular: Khalil sees social and political pressure on the nightclub scene from the governing conservative majority which makes the business a tricky one.

But while 2011 marked a turning point in Tunisia’s electronic music scene, others see the development of the scene going further back. The electronic music scene in Tunisia had already been growing quickly and ranged widely – from the formation of experimental music production collectives like San’s to live performances by international commercial stars like David Guetta and DJ Tiesto in 2009.

“I’m completely sure the revolution played an enormous role in this, [but] this didn’t come out of nowhere,” said the researcher Barone. “I think all along in the history of independent Tunisia, there has been a small but steady club circuit, in particular in the Cap Bon areas. You had an audience which wasn’t entirely a tourist audience and you had a set of infrastructures that made it so potentially there were places where this music could be played.”

Electro’s Exclusivity

Today, a robust offering of electronic music spaces exists in Tunisia. The Gammarth area of Tunis has a bustling summer club scene where electronic musicians perform regularly, and clubs in other towns like Hammamet and Sousse cater to vacationers, foreigners and Tunisians alike.

Yet while the electronic music scene continues to grow, obstacles still abound for its development, and it lacks the numbers to compare to European countries, where the music originates from.

Khalil, who himself DJs occasionally, says that running a club for electronic music isn’t a sustainable business model in Tunisia. Khalil used to manage a techno club in Tunis, and he says it closed in large part because there wasn’t enough revenue in it.

“One of the challenges is that techno is very linked to drugs so you end up having people who – and it’s something that’s really hard to control – are on ecstasy, who have friends who are girls that can hide it in their bras, and you can’t make them buy beer or drinks,” Khalil said. “So you end up having to pay for DJs and equipment and electricity – you make almost zero money every night.”

Money acts as a limiting factor in the growth of the scene in other ways as well. For one, from the listener’s perspective, experiencing electronic music in a live setting is too expensive even for many middle class Tunisians.

“When you live in Tunis and you want to go and dance in Gammarth, you have to spend money on a taxi, then you have to spend money on a ticket in some cases. Then you have to spend money on alcohol. And not everybody could have access to this,” Barone said. “Besides this, in some clubs you have door selection, and door selection is quite explicitly aimed at excluding people who look like they come from the ‘houma,’ the working class neighborhoods.”

For reference, a taxi ride to Gammarth can cost about 10 to 15 dinars each way depending on where one lives in Tunis. Entry costs can reach up to 30 dinars, and the standard rate for a beer at a bar is six dinars, while other drinks can run much higher. While unemployment and underemployment remains relatively high, especially among young people, for those do have a job the gross Tunisian minimum wage is 403 dinars a month. According to an official study in 2015, Tunisians on average spent 209 dinars a month on groceries, rent and utilities, and transportation alone, and inflation since then has regularly reached over 7 percent, suggesting that 209 dinars may be a vast underestimation of how much Tunisians currently spend on basic needs.

On an international scale, the devaluation of the Tunisian Dinar has made it more difficult for Tunisian clubs to pay foreign DJs to come and perform. Consequently this has helped develop the domestic scene more as it has encouraged clubs to hire more local DJs, according to Sabri Khalfallah, the founder of People’s Beats, an online magazine about electronic music that focuses on Tunisia.

Occidental rhythms?

Beyond issues stemming from money, some see more fundamental obstacles to the growth of electronic music in Tunisia. San, who studies music from a sociological perspective, says the main factor preventing it from growing in popularity is that – from its production to its intended audience – the genre revolves around Western culture.

“When you live in Europe, Berlin, Paris or even Copenhagen, the connection with electronic music comes from an occidental background. The music speaks to you directly. The same basics in music that produced classical music…produced electronic music – the temperate scales, the rhythmical construction,” San said.

San knows Tunisia’s electronic music scene well. He helped develop it. His interest in the music and in producing it began shortly after the year 2000, and in 2008 he started a collective called World Full of Bass for Tunisian electronic music producers to fill what he saw as a gap in Tunis’s music scene. The group of nine members held monthly performances at different locations in Tunis up until 2013, although it is “dormant” for the moment, according to San.

“The link we have with [traditional Arabic] music, for me it is a little bit lost, because the system with which we [electronic musicians] write our music is not the system produced by our culture. It’s the system produced by another culture. That’s where they [the West] have the power in all of this.”

According to Barone, there is also a perception among some that the electronic music scene in Tunisia is at odds with Tunisian social values, Tunisian law, and the tenets of Islam. On the other hand there exists a school of thought that the hedonism associated with electronic music fits perfectly into Tunisia’s society.

“Are [clubs] places where you can break the laws of Tunisian societal norms, or are these the places that actually show you what Tunisia is really made of,” Barone said. “[There’s an idea that] the drug culture, the culture of excess that’s typical of the electronic scene, is against or is considered as an infringement of the Islamic way of life in Tunisia. It’s not quite like that…Tunisia is a place where different things can be done in different places, where norms are quite flexible.”

Still, there have been instances where the electronic music scene seemed to clash with other parts of Tunisian society. When the first “Electronic Dunes” festival was held in 2014, some anti-Islamist media outlets raised warnings about potential threats from conservatives. One unverified article quoted a now apparently defunct conservative website as saying “that holding the event was “a lack of respect for Tunisians and their habits and customs.” In 2017, British DJ Dax J was charged with offending public morality and sentenced in absentia to a year in prison (he had already returned to the UK) for remixing a Muslim call to prayer during a performance in the city of Nabeul. The nightclub he played at, El Guitoune, was also reportedly shut down temporarily because of the incident.

Fears over security and the threat of terrorism have also posed issues for electronic music events in Tunisia.

“When you try to book a DJ, it happens so often that they say: ‘We don’t want to come to Tunisia because it’s not safe,’ which is not true,” Khalfallah told Meshkal.

Khalfallah gave the example of French DJ N’to who had canceled a trip to play in the club Yüka in Gamamath after two people attacked security forces in downtown Tunis in late June, killing one police officer at the time.

Despite these obstacles, the electronic music scene is continuing to grow in Tunisia. Even if the growth is slow, many in the scene are optimistic about its potential. Barone’s optimism lies in the diversity of those who listen to the music.

“You have events where you have the Tunisians who want to go and have fun; you have events that are all about the hedonism, drug taking, going to events; then you have people who want musical research, to discover new music, to reflect on the music, who appreciate the music intellectually,” Barone said. “These different parts of the scene are in conflict at times…[but] in the end the scene is diverse enough that it can attract the different parts of the local middle classes.”

Khalfallah’s believes that the external barriers holding back the scene are gone and it can now grow unimpeded.

“I’m hopeful because I think the biggest challenges are behind us – the security, the economy of Tunisia will come back,” he said. “And Tunisians are optimistic by nature.”