In this series we turn our attention to the cities that are forging a defining sound, examining the wider stories behind them. In this edition, we’re travelling across the Mediterranean to Tunisia and the Gammarth district just outside the capital of Tunis.
Dance music culture, as with all scenes, evolves with and in response to changing structural and political landscapes. Through the 90s and 00s, the sonic pastures of Tunisia were dominated by trance and techno, however, under the Ben Ali regime, spaces and freedom in which DJs and revellers alike could come together were sparse.
Despite this suppression, Tunis still gained a reputation as the best spot along the north African peninsula for bars and clubs. This was in part due popular European tourism along the coastal towns stemming from the lasting influence of French colonisation. However, whilst late night licenses and the sale of alcohol were permitted, corruption and state interference drove the prices of entry and drinks unreasonably high, simply for promoters to break even.
Exclusivity of clientele was achieved through high prices and strict elitist door policies that excluded all those without the financial clout or chic appearance. A status-orientated approach to nightlife inevitably followed in which bottles of vodka at the table took precedence over dancing to commercial techno.
In the wider society, civil unrest was growing after more than 30 years of the Ben Ali regime. Unemployment was high, corruption endemic within the government and police and freedom of speech suppressed. A disenfranchised youth turned to hip-hop to express their strife against the regime.
On the 7th November 2010, a national holiday to celebrate the day Ben Ali came to power, a young Hamada Ben Amor, under the alias ‘El Général’, uploaded his EP ‘Rais Lebled’ to his Facebook and Myspace platforms, translated as “President your people are dead.” His message was clear and its content striking. Over a goth rock influenced boom-bap beat, El Général spits:
“Mr. President, you told me to speak without fear.
I spoke here but I knew that my end would be palms [i.e., slaps and beatings].
I see so much injustice. That’s why I chose to speak out even though many people told me that my end will be execution.
But how long [must] the Tunisian live in illusions?
Where is freedom of expression? I saw that it was [only] words.
They named Tunisia “the Green.” Mr. President, you can see
today that Tunis has become a desert that’s divided into two sides.
They steal in broad daylight, confiscate property, and own the land. [Even] without me naming them, you know who they are!
So much money was pledged for projects and infrastructure: schools, hospitals, buildings, and improvements.
But the sons of bitches stuffed [their] pot-bellies with the people’s money.
They stole, robbed, dismembered, kidnapped and would not give up the seats [of power].
I know there are many words in the people’s hearts that don’t reach you.
If the situation weren’t unjust, I would not be speaking out today.”
Despite the shutting down of his social media accounts by the state, his words would go onto soundtrack a revolution. A month after the release of ‘Rais Lebled’, a wave of protests swept the streets following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in what became the Jasmine Revolution of the Arab Spring.
Pivotal in shaping the aural landscape in the years to follow was Le Plug, a club founded by Khaled Trabelsi and Haythem Achour to raise money in support of the revolution. Situated in the Kobbet Lahwé on the La Marsa beachfront, the venue holds a near mythical status in the memories of those who attended.
Akin to Frankie Knuckles’s ‘Warehouse’ in Chicago during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the venue was the watering hole for an alternative youth that celebrated inclusivity and liberal attitudes amid the country’s liberation. The line-ups were varied and reflected the listening interest of its owners.
Metal bands played regularly during the week courtesy of Trabelsi, whilst Achour, who DJs as Ogra and part of electro collective ‘Waveform’, would bring electronic experimentalists for the weekends. Looking out to the horizon from Le Plug’s dance-floor, a new sound travelled across the sea to welcome a new dawn.
In the years following, a spawn of new DIY collectives and labels emerged, with no less than 10 imprints being founded between 2010-2012, focused mainly around House music. One of the most influential collectives to emerge was Downtown Vibes in 2013, headed by Hamdi RydEr and Aymen Ghannoudi.
As a real student of the game, Hamdi brings a meticulous attention to detail to all of his projects. From his Chicago House inspired productions, to his vinyl-only sets at their party ‘Secret Vibes’ held at various undisclosed locations, he set the precedent for what dance music should look, sound and feel like.
You can now catch him running Eddisco, a record label and store founded by Downtown Vibes in 2018. As the only underground record store in Tunis, it has become a hub for young musicians and listeners alike to dig through a collection of house, techno, hip-hop, jazz, disco as well as obscure records from across the region and learn from the Godfathers of the scene.
When the regime fell, so too did the national censorship of the internet. With these new freedoms came an insatiable appetite for new sounds. Where Downtown Vibes served an energetic plate of origin orthodoxy, collectives World Full of Bass and Arabstazy would introduce the crowds to the sweet tooth they didn’t know they had – in the form of darker, bass-orientated and abstract soundscapes.
Among their roster was a Tunis-via-Doha art graduate in the way of Deena Abdelwahed. When she started her Thursday night residency at Le Plug under the pretence of “anything that’s not house and techno”, Abdelwahed was playing a blend of breakbeats, footwork and juke. Her first release, ‘Klabb’ was released on Paris based label InFine in 2017 following a move to Toulouse in 2015.
Having been exposed to industrial and rave centred techno in Europe, Deena developed a new found interest in the 4×4 canvas she’d previously rejected. Embracing samples, vocals and percussive rhythms of the Middle East laid over a bass techno spine, her productions are experimental yet club ready – akin to Bristol imprints such as Batu’s Timedance, who she joined for a b2b on the London leg of their 5-year anniversary tour earlier this year. Amidst the barrage of low-end frequencies her productions remain deeply personal whilst politically and socially motivated.
Ena Essbab, the third track on the Klabb EP translates as ‘because of me’, referencing the culture of blame that’s directed towards members of the LGBTQ+ for bringing bad luck and God’s punishment. Interpreting these experiences musically with experimental ambience and eery vocals laid over a storm of sub and intricate rhythms, Abdelwahed creates an experience that’s tactilely, acoustically and emotionally rich. Now a firm figure in the international under current, her breakout year came in 2018 when she released her first full album ‘Khonnar’, performing it live later that year at Dekmantel festival, as well as her Boiler Room debut in Amsterdam.
Spearheading the second generation of DJs and producers rising through the ranks is Jihed Monser, aka HearThuG. His musical output blurs the lines between acid house, breakbeat and electro with a characteristically playful swing. In 2018 he founded the ‘Are You Alien’ label as a way to release music from his growing back catalogue as well as other emerging talents.
We recently reviewed their first compilation ‘Spicy Space’, displaying the varying palettes of a new wave of electro artists. A tireless worker, Jihed has released over six of his own EPs in the last two years, as well as multiple singles including a recent appearance on Morocco’s unabating electro funk label Casa Voyager. Often playing two to three times a week in multiple venues, he’s a local’s favourite and one of ours too. He’s recently teamed up with Hamdi Ryder for a residency at Yuka for their ‘Acid United’ party, a monthly dose of rave therapy.
Revellers in Tunis today have various options every night of the week when arriving in the Gammarth district with a host of venues within a small area, each of their own persuasion to suit your ear.
At the Wax Bar you can exchange records over a drink or get up and drop the needle on your favourite new record. Habibi continues the legacy of Le Plug with a variety of live performances and club nights with an artistic decor.
For picturesque sunset to sunrise sets on the beach, Yuka is the place to go. In September 2019 it was chosen as the venue to present the Tunisian party to the world when Boiler Room rocked up for the first time, featuring Hearthug, Deena Abdelwahed alongside fellow stalwarts in Crossend, Shamann and Da Che.
Inevitably, we will have not included many of the significant contributors to the development of this new music culture, but we would like to give our thanks to Mohammed, Mamound, HearThuG and Hamdi Ryder for their interviews.