(Read the first part of this article here.)
“The more you understand the music, the easier you can dance.”
– Orlando Gutinez
Mezwed is a highly sensual?and danceable?musical genre. One of my earliest encounters with it was at a wedding in Gafsa; this having been my first visit to Tunisia, I was not at all prepared for the sight of women my grandmother’s age, heads properly swathed in hijabs and sporting traditional desert garb, smiling joyfully while swinging their ample hips with shameless abandon to the sounds of the mezwed, bindir, and dharbouka.
My assumption that Arab Muslims were prudes went out the window that night.
The Mezwed Performance
In a typical performance, the group plays for a long time before the singer arrives, building the level of excitement with increasingly faster rhythms and louder, more intense playing. (If you watch the mezwed player start to blow you’ll see what look like two horns rising up on either side of the instrument; these are part of the mezwed’s hide construction and point up when the instrument fills with air.) When the singer arrives he or she and the audience are thoroughly geared up for an impassioned vocal performance.
Gaddour has played his bindir with Golden Mezwed at many traditional Tunisian festivities, including, he sheepishly admits, the celebration of the circumcision of the son of Ben Ali, the autocrat ousted in the Jasmine Revolution in early 2011.
Golden Mezwed doesn’t have songs of their own per se, because their role is to provide accompaniment, in the studio and on the stage, for iconic male and female Tunisian singers.
Each singer has a particular repertoire and subject matter; some focus on songs of love, some of loss, some of political struggles, some of poverty, and some of joyful festivity. Gaddour and his musical colleagues must know all of these repertoires by heart, both music and words, because they never know when they’ll be called on to accompany this or that singer musically, or even be asked to join in on the singing.
One evening, Gaddour arrives at the café in the company of another band member?Faycel Chaebaane who plays darbouka. When I ask them if It’s possible to make a living at this, they say that yes it is; although Faycel admits to having a day job, Gaddour earns his living and supports his family with mezwed alone.
So what were they doing in Canada? Bringing a slice of home to homesick Tunisians living in the Great White North. In Tunisia mezwed music is ubiquitous, but there’s no Canadian street where one can overhear mezwed wafting from a wedding or a New Year’s party, and that can create a bit of a cultural void for the Tunisian immigrant.
As Faycel points out, Tunisians living in Europe can fly home often, but Canada is so far away that trips home are far more expensive?and far less frequent. This means bringing the music to Canada.
Apparently, the Tunisian immigrants had been waiting for the music to come to them; as we see in a Youtube video of the performance, the concert hall was packed to the rafters.
Keeping it Together
The technical aspects of mezwed (the genre) are easy to explain in words, but, in practice, difficult to master. The rhythms are a combination of double beats and triplets that become more rapid and enmeshed as the music goes on. It’s intoxicating to listen to a mezwed song start off slowly and then build in speed and intensity until you wonder if the musicians will be able to control the music long enough to keep it from flying off into outer space. But they always somehow manage to stay in sync.
don’t take my word for it. To hear Golden Mezwed for yourself, just type their name into Youtube. And don’t be scared to dance.