Lotfi Bouchnak: A Chosen BeingLotfi Bouchnak: A Chosen Being arab-music.com
Yoshiko Matsuda(Oud player & Professor of Tama Art University)

Lotfi Bouchnak: A Chosen Being
Yoshiko Matsuda(Oud player & Professor of Tama Art University)


A Great Singer of Arab Music

Traditionally, Arab music gives central stage to song. There is, for example, the nuba, a legacy of the Arab Andalusian music that spread to North Africa. Nubas are commonly referred to as suites of vocal and instrumental pieces, but in fact song plays a major part, and the nuba could be called a program designed to allow the enjoyment of consecutive songs. The instrumental music in the nuba functions primarily as a smooth introduction to the songs, as well as to repeat the sung melodies and to fill in passages without song. The independent instrumental part of the nuba (which is called tushiya in Tunisia) is said to have been added in or after the 18th century by the influences of Turkish music. A search throughout the Arab sphere, including Al-Mashriq (the eastern Arab lands), shows that instrumental music developed through a process of interchanges with the music of the 16th century Ottoman Turkish court and with western music.

It should go without saying, therefore, that the position of a singer in Arab music is very high. A star artist who sings solos is required to possess a variety of qualities and abilities. A voice with beauty, power and range is of course required, together with accuracy in pronunciation that can win over speakers of Arabic who consider poetry and eloquence the pinnacles of virtue. Such a singer must also be capable of altering the melody when necessary, and sometimes even of improvising poetic lyrics. In any case, a profound knowledge of the modes of Arab music, a well-rounded literary background, a rich literary sense and improvisational ability are all essential.

The practice of spending a whole night enjoying the songs of such a splendidly talented singer is called the sahara (meaning evening). Singers who can satisfactorily perform a sahara and give their listeners tarab are considered to be the very best. Tarab, a term often used by Arabs, refers to a kind of ecstasy or euphoria attained from music or song. There has been no end to anecdotes concerning tarab ever since the time of the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) compiled in the 10th-century by Al-Isbahani, who wrote of a caliph so transported by the love songs of a great singer that he ripped his own clothing. Tarab is the ideal state sought by music.

Now that both Umm Kulthum and Mohamed Abdelwahab are gone, there are few singers left in the Arab world who have the true capacity to transport their listeners into tarab. In Syria there is Sabah Fakhri, in Lebanon there are Fairuz and Wadi Al-Safi, and of equal rank, in Tunisia there is Lotfi Bouchnak. He is one of these precious individuals, and truly a chosen being.


Lotfi Bouchnak has a wide repertoire that extends from classical to contemporary songs. When he started working with music in the 1970s, Lotfi Bouchnak studied under oud master Ali Sriti. Almost immediately he distinguished himself as a solo singer, and distinguished musicians such as Anouar Brahem began to provide him with songs. During the 1990s, he rose to international stardom, to the extent that every one of his performances at the Cairo Opera House in Egypt was sold out. The Maison des Cultures du Monde in France produced a CD titled Malouf Tunisien, released in 1993. The heritage of Arab Andalusian music, as centered on the earlier explained nuba, is called Maluf in Tunisia, and this classical Maluf music was introduced to the world by Lotfi Bouchnak.
Here I would like to introduce some of the Maluf recorded by Lotfi Bouchnak, through my own partial translations, to demonstrate what kinds of songs these are.

Zarani Munyati (My so desired love visited me)
(Lyrics by the 12th-century Andalusian poet Ibn Zhur Al Hafid; composition by the 20th-century Tunisian musician Muhammad Ghanim)

My so desired love visited me
And my time was so filled with pleasure
That my heart's yearning is satisfied
The feelings that burn in me
Were tempered by his kiss
As sweet as sugar
I said;
Oh, my so desired love, my all,
How splendid to stay up the whole moonlit night with you

Jismi Fani (My body grows gaunt with love for you)

Out of love for you
My body
Has grown gaunt
My longing for you
Only grows stronger
For me, you see,
My love is all for you alone
Moon of al-Aid
When I see you
I grow strangely confused
Is your little heart
Made out of steel?

Maluf are sprinkled with poetic gems such as these in the same way the night sky is sprinkled with galaxies of stars. The topics of Maluf songs are love, nature, wine, God, the lost homeland and more–a great variety. The songs relate, in other words, to life in general. The overwhelming majority, however, are love poems, describing the loved one with beautiful words, or relating how reluctant a lover is to part from a loved one.

However, Lotfi Bouchnak’s repertoire is not limited to the traditional music of Tunisia. There is the Muwashshah, which is a classical song form that is part of the musical heritage of the entire Arab world. Here I will introduce one particularly well-known Muwashshah that Lotfi Bouchnak often sings on stage, again in my own translations.

Lamma Bada Yatathanna (When she started to walk)

When she started to walk, gently swaying,
Her beauty utterly defeated me

I became a captive of her eyes
She leaned her body over

Oh, my promise,
And oh, my perplexity
My lament of love and suffering
Will be given answer
By that beautiful one alone

Lotfi Bouchnak also has a special affinity for the works of the great artists of 20th-century Egypt. There is, for example, the song "Al-Ward Gamil" (Flowers are beautiful) that was created for the movie Fatima (1946), which starred Umm Kulthum. Written by Mahmud Bayram Al-Tunisi and composed by Zakariyya Ahmad, this song, sung by the composer himself, was a major hit. Lotfi Bouchnak sang this song in a voice reminiscent of Zakariyya Ahmad's, providing satisfaction for the composer's old fans. In the recording of his concert in Egypt, Lotfi Bouchnak gave an improvisational twist to the line "Ya full, ya ruh, ya ruh al-ruh" (meaning, "Oh fragrant full, flower of my soul") and changed it to "Ya Masr, ya ruh, ya ruh al-ruh.... Ya Tunis, ya ruh, ya ruh al-ruh" (meaning Oh Egypt of my soul. Oh, Tunisia of my soul), to great ovations from the audience. This shows the true worth of Lotfi Bouchnak. With one masterful song, he was able to express the depth of his love for Egyptian music at the same time he invoked his identity as a Tunisian. This is improvisation informed with intelligence, and that is the secret of this singer's performances, which are fresh whenever we see them.

Both a superior oud player and a composer, Lotfi Bouchnak has recently been paying more attention to performing his own original compositions. The most recent performances of his that I attended were two concerts in Tunisia in October 2005. One of the performances was at Cobbat Nahass Palace, once the palace of the music-loving ruler Muhammad Al-Rashid Bey. The other was in the Tunis Municipal Theater during the Medina Festival. Talking after the performance, he remarked that almost every song in his concert program was his own composition, and his manner exhibited the highly developed self-confidence of a fully mature composer. His song "Nassaya" (You are so forgetful) in the distinctively Tunisian M'hayer Sika mode and other pieces are already well on their way to becoming beloved classics.

This means, in other words, that Lotfi Bouchnak is a legitimate heir of Arab art music, and he will continue his activities as a creative musician who is constantly pushing back the frontiers of new music.

Sharing the Ultimate Stage Performance

Looking back, I recall the first time I saw a live performance by Lotfi Bouchnak--10 years ago or more. My impression at that time was that this was a person who treated his audience with particular care. Arab music truly comes alive in the interactive relationship between an artist and the audience in any case, so any musician is sensitively attuned to the responses of the audience, and adjusts performances accordingly. When Lotfi Bouchnak came out on the stage and stood there, he raised his hands up high in a greeting to the audience. When he received applause for singing, he would wave again or express his thanks. He truly communicated well with his audience. Since that time, I have seen him perform on stage on numerous occasions, and my initial impression has only been reinforced. He will call out to the audience, and sometimes even have the audience sing part of a song with him (the audiences in Tunisia all know Lotfi Bouchnak's songs very well), leading his listeners into the sheer enjoyment of splendid moments of delight and rapture, or in other words, tarab. That is his style.

The group of accompanists who support Lotfi Bouchnak are also, of course, very fine musicians. There is, for example, the stringed instrument known as the qanun. It is said that when the singer sings an improvised melody, that melody can be most faithfully reproduced by a top-flight qanun player. Most of the major singers have their own favorite qanun players. Tawfik Zghonda is a great performer who has always backed up Lotfi Bouchnak. The coming Japan tour performances will include, apart from the qanun, first-rate performers such as the great violinist Bechir Essalmi.

Lotfi Bouchnak demonstrates his respect for tradition through his performances on stage. His songs lead into taqsim (improvisation) played by a solo instrument, such as a violin, and then, as if inspired by that playing, the singer enters again with mawwal (vocal improvisation). This then makes the transition to the next song. When performing a medley of songs together, sometimes they will be linked very smoothly by use of matching rhythms, and other times songs with different rhythms will be juxtaposed so that the change in rhythm and speed gives pleasure. These techniques of linking and methods of presentation themselves were developed during the long and rich history of Arab music. No doubt the listeners immerse themselves in the ambience of various distinctive modes, and as they receive full enjoyment from the singing and instrumentals that form these beautiful sustained melodies, they are, without being consciously aware of it, drawn into an indescribable euphoria. Indeed, this is how we and the artists are able to share the sweet essence of refined Arab art music together.

Article published in the panphlet of Lotfi Bouchnak Concert Tour in Japan 2006: courtesy of Japan Foundation.
Tranlated by Idea Institute
Photo by Atsuko Takagi (Courtesy The Japan Foundation)

Copyright(c)2006 All Rights Reserved.

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