REVIEW: Emel – The Tunis Diaries

Musical history is full of instances of musicians responding to the limitations of their circumstances and finding creativity and inspiration within those constraints. Think Tony Iommi responding to the loss of his fingertips in an industrial accident by down-tuning his guitar to make it easier to play and virtually inventing the heavy metal sound as we know it. Or early grime producers doing much of their best work on the production software they had available – the PlayStation game Music 2000. Under these circumstances, incredible work is often produced.

COVID and its resulting restrictions have had a terrible impact on the music industry. But they have also led to myriad examples of spontaneity, ingenuity and creativity. Emel is a Tunisian musician who was caught out by COVID-19 whilst visiting family in Tunis. Separated from her husband, musicians and equipment, she managed to cobble together a laptop, tape recorder, guitar and USB cable.

The resulting EP is a fascinating document of how she turned to music during that separation. The first half consists of reworkings of her songs, whilst the second focuses on songs by a range of other artists. It makes a compelling argument for the power of music; both as a creative outlet that can give you a voice at a time of uncertainty, and as a healing and centering process in itself. Listening to these tracks feels incredibly personal. You almost feel like you’re in the room with her as she picks up the guitar, returning to songs from her back catalogue or list of favourites and finding comfort and strength in the familiar.

As expected, the style is sparse and minimal. For the most part it is her voice supported only by strummed or finger-picked guitar. Occasionally she layers electronics or her own voice over the top, but the music is mostly unadorned. This approach, born out of necessity, pays dividends. I am a complete newcomer to her music, so I can’t attest to what her songs sounded like in their original guise. But re-worked here, they are haunting, stark and fragilely beautiful.

Emel draws on a variety of influences, French chanson on ‘Holm’, flamenco on ‘Dhalem’, folk elsewhere, marrying that to vocal inflections which mix those influences with the musical traditions of her home country. Stripped to the essentials of guitar and voice, the songs are given space to breathe. They are by turns anthemic, reflective and melancholy. Her voice is captivating, capable of both power and delicacy.

The second part of the EP is equally arresting. Unlike the awful M&S Advert reworkings of classic songs with soft acoustic guitar and breathy vocals which deadens and strips them of their impact, here the minimalist approach lends extra crunch to the songs.

The cover of Nirvana’s ‘Something In the Way’, a stripped down take on an already stripped down song, is particularly good. Cobain’s stark, brutal lyrics are rendered oddly beautiful by her delivery and the refrain of ‘something in the way’ becomes almost overwhelming. ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ is equally good. Shorn of the hard rock guitar of the original, the alienation and despair of the lyrics seem even more shocking. The cover of Placebo’s ‘Every Me and Every You’ reveals hidden depths in the song’s depiction of a damaging, all-consuming relationship.

The Tunis Diaries EP is both a document of our current situation and a powerful creative response to it. Which would mean nothing if it wasn’t very good. Fortunately, as I have hopefully conveyed, it is an arresting, rewarding listen that is worthy of your attention.

Words by Will Collins

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