PROFILES

Can Stambeli, the Spiritual Music of Tunisia, Be Saved?

For centuries, the Tunisian spiritual music has been misunderstood. Now, musicians like Salah el Ouergli are trying to keep it from disappearing entirely.

by Sarah Souli
07 October 2016, 3:11pm

The slightest movement is enough to bring everything—the stretched animal hide drums, the three-stringed gambris decorated with jangling faux bijoux, the sun-faded portraits—tumbling down in an extraordinary cacophony of noise and memory. So Salah el Ouergli moves slowly, intentionally, his bare feet firmly planted on his desk, his eyes narrowed in concentration. His hands hover above an instrument, determining how best to manoeuvre​ it. Not unlike Jenga, except the stakes are higher. We all hold our breath as the top shelf quakes. Sabrine Touti, a dancer, helpfully hands him a stick to use. Minutes drip by, until finally the instrument comes down to safety.

It's a gambara. Salah's favourite. He plucks at the strings, traditionally made of dehydrated goat guts, a smile on his face. Is it cheesy to say his eyes are twinkling? Well, they are. The room swells with rhythm, and Salah starts to sing. This is stambeli music—or at least, the part we're allowed to see.

"[Stambeli] is the music of peace—peace on the whole world," Salah tells me from his small shop-cum-studio tucked away in the medina of Tunis. It's the day before Eid el Kabir, the Muslim sacrificial holiday, and the streets are full of children dragging sheep around—pets until the following day, when they will be ritually slaughtered. The sheep's bleating keeps interrupting the rhythmic music. No one seems to notice. Salah keeps playing, his gambara occasionally punctured by a guttural baaaa.

Salah's shop serves as a meeting place for the few dancers, musicians, and students left in Tunis. Historically, stambeli has never been fully integrated into Tunisian music culture, but these days, it's even more on the outskirts. And so Salah's shop, where the door is often open and the music pools out onto the marbled streets, is an especially rare phenomenon in a city generally devoid of music.

People pop their heads in and stay awhile, tapping their feet, or singing a few refrains of a song. For some Tunisians, it's their first time hearing stambeli. "What is this?" a young mother asks, forehead furrowed, her two daughters in tow. "This isn't Tunisian," she says.

She's not exactly wrong. Stambeli first arrived on the shores of North Africa through trade, including the human variety. Tunisia, a small country tucked between Libya and Algeria, was a geographically strategic point for the trans-Saharan routes, until slavery was abolished in 1846. Sub-Saharan music cultures from places we now know of as Mali, Nigeria, and Sudan were brought into Tunisia by both caravans of traders and shackled slaves.

The languages, customs, and rituals of these places mixed with those of Tunisia, including forms of Islam and Sufism, resulting in a decidedly unique form of music. An elaborate stambeli performance involves multiple musicians playing a variety of instruments, resulting in a richly textured and layered music, though stripped down to its essentials. The main instruments are the gumbri, the shqashiq, and the tabla.

A gumbri is a three-stringed lute, its body the same shape of a drum; it is often decorated with shaqshaqa. It's a three-for-one piece, with the musician plucking at the strings while hitting the base of the instrument with his palms (stambeli musicians are almost always men). With every movement, the shaqshaqa, or metal shaker, hisses and buzzes. Shqashiq are onomatopoeic iron castanets worn around the fingers. The double-headed tabla drum rounds out the procession. The gambara—Salah's preferred piece—is considered a "sister" to the gumbri; it's another three-stringed lute, the body a solid rectangle.

As the rhythmical music plays, the pitch rises, the song speeds up, and the music spins you around and around. The objective is trance. At its core, stambeli is a trance healing tradition, emerging from the spirit possession practices of certain Sub-Saharan tribes. As stambeli was influenced by North African customs, it came to encompass the saints prevalent in Islam. The saints and spirits are the two bedrocks of stambeli.

For this reason, stambeli is not just about sound; it's a religious and spiritual experience as well, combining music, chanting, and dance to create a healing, trance-like ritual. Traditional stambeli performances also include an arifa, or a healer who acts as a sort of mediator between the spirit world and our human world. But stambeli music isn't just privately played when someone is possessed by a disruptive spirit. As a genre, stambeli is multi-faceted both in its meaning and its place in Tunisian culture.

Stambeli only became stigmatized because of a lack of understanding. But it's positive in every sense, it's about love.

"Its role in Tunisian society is complex," Richard Jankowsky, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Tufts University, and author of the only English-language book on stambeli, tells me. "It's never been entirely insular."

In the 18th and 19th century, stambeli dancers and musicians acted as freelance artists, called to perform in both intimate events at home, and larger concerts. Arab slave traders would request spiritual healing music, Jankosky says, and so-called "white" Tunisians began attending stambeli ceremonies. During the Ottoman era, stambeli musicians would play at the Bey's palace, and would be rewarded for their acts.

Over time, stambeli was adopted by different Tunisians, not just descendents of slaves. But "for the black community," Jankowsky notes, "it maintained a record of slavery and different ethno-linguistic [varieties]... it played a role of recording."

Though most stambeli songs are sung in Arabic, many of them are still sung in what musicians refer to as "African language" (or ya'azni). This is one aspect that sets stambeli apart from gnawa, another trance-like music with a similar trajectory in nearby Morocco. Gnawa, Salah tells me, is mostly Sufism, without the preservation of ya'azni.

Stambeli musicians sing about everything from love and nature to the praise of saints, to spirits, though as Salah notes gravely, "you can't understand the words." He means it both literally—it's in a different language—and figuratively. Stambeli is deeply intrinsic: It's either in your culture and history, or it's not. Most of the music is passed down from generation to generation. There are no formal recited or written texts, Jankowsky writes in his book, "rather… the stambeli pantheon exists only through its musical performance."

"Stambeli only became stigmatized because of a lack of understanding," Salah says, "but it's positive in every sense, it's [a music] about love."

It's a positivity that's often misunderstood in contemporary Tunisian culture. For one thing, it's not recognized as a patrimoine by the Tunisian government, a practice that dates back to French colonization, when stambeli was brushed aside in favour of a more "modern" perspective. It was, Jankowsky notes, considered "irrational to believe in saints and spirits."

After Tunisia gained its independence, stambeli continued to be viewed as something "against the aspirations of the modern nation-state." Still today, very few government efforts have been made to preserve the music. (The Ministry of Culture declined to comment for this article).

As a result, there's very little education around stambeli. Perhaps most damning, some Tunisians confuse the spirits in the music with jinn, supernatural, often demonic creatures in the Qur'an that are meant to be avoided at all costs. There are accusations that stambeli, with its sub-Saharan roots, promotes witchcraft or black magic, which are considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam.

Because of this, from a religiously conservative perspective, stambeli is considered un-Islamic. After the 2011 revolution, when religious freedoms were relaxed, there was an upswing in ultra-conservative Salafism, which led to several stambeli shrines being vandalized.

Salah's shop also serves as a place to learn about stambeli and partially functions as an homage to the masters of stambeli. He points to the photographs around his shop as he ticks off the names of the greats, some of them his former teachers. They've since all passed away; the last one, Hamadi Bideri, died last year at the age of 87. In Tunis, there are only a handful of stambeli masters left; Salah is among them.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sabrine Touti is one of the few stambeli dancers in Tunis. She learned the dance from her mother, an arifa who could see the future. Her mother used to dance with Salah, but she has passed away, too.

With most of stambeli's musicians and dancers dead, mounting animosity from certain sectors of society, and lacklustre government support, how will stambeli continue to be preserved?

"I used to feel a lot more spiritual when I was playing my music," Salah tells me, "but now I feel that less because of all these problems." He is, however, making an effort to preserve the music in his own way, by taking on private students, playing with Western musicians to create fusion tunes, and applying to teach stambeli instruments at the conservatory.

There is a decline in full-scale, traditional stambeli healing concerts, though, as people move into crowded apartment buildings with gossiping neighbors, and increasingly turn to modern medicine to heal their ailments. Still, you can occasionally hear stambeli music on radio stations, at small, open air concerts during the month of Ramadan, and at sporadic concerts organized around the country.

"I've learned not to be too pessimistic," Jankowsky tells me, "because cultures and especially musicians are [skilled] at adapting."

And perhaps the whole point of stambeli is outside of preservation, something so rich and different that it can't be codified by government grants and commercial record deals. To listen to a stambeli musician do his thing—to watch his body sway over the instrument, the calloused fingertips running up the strings, to hear the warbled chant (Sidi Mansour ya baba, Sidi Mansour ya baba)—is singularly unique, meant to be experienced in the flesh.

Sabrine, like her mother, can see into the future—though not as clearly, she concedes. For her, stambeli music will always be here. "How can I explain it to you," she says thoughtfully. "It's our life. It's something in our blood… and from father comes the blood."

Special thanks to Emily Sarsam

All photos by Nikolaos Symeonidis

Sarah Souli is a writer based in Tunis and Berlin. Follow her on Twitter.