Ghalia Benali is exploring musical heritage around the Mediterranean
By Yasmine nazmy
Tunisian-Belgian singer Ghalia Benali has been singing since she was three years old. Her signature throaty croons and love of Arab heritage have made her a hit with European and Arab audiences alike. She has dared to interpret Arab giants like Omm Kalthoum, forming a distinct and authentic sound that has drawn both praise and criticism.
The mother of two is an artist, singer, dancer and actor; she laughs as she includes ‘house wife’ in her list of roles. And although she is currently based in Brussels, she visits her native Tunisia often.
“I travel a lot, so I like to go home. Home is the origin, and it has the values,” says Benali. “Someone told me that I improvise on improvising, and it is true: You can be free in a lot of things if you know the rules. You have to know the rules of gravity in order to fly. You cannot be free and say what you want unless you know the rules. You will be more free if you know the rules.”
Singing in a coffee shop in Cairo, she greets fans and friends that meet her warmly, inviting them to sit at her table. She tells the story of how she became a singer as if it were a series of coincidences rather than a calling. She is neither vain nor modest, but her eyes light up mischievously when she talks about projects that excite her, especially ones that let her travel and learn about native musical styles.
“I intend to work with Egyptian musicians on a series of projects. I did ‘I’ll see you in Alexandria,’ and I would like to do ‘I’ll see you in Cairo.’ The other one that I really want to do is ‘I’ll see you in Upper Egypt,’” she says.
Moving from region to region, she hopes to capture an essence and culture that is more authentic and closer to the roots. Having made a career in Europe from singing Omm Kalthoum, roots and heritage have become as essential to her music as they are to her character.
“I like the idea of Egypt which is not Arab, Egypt which goes back to the origins, like Nubians, etc. Just like in Tunisia we have Berber and Amazir, Upper Egyptians and Nubians have a very different way of singing,” she says. “For me, Egypt was always Arab, but even in films, there were always other identities that were more exotic. Egypt is Arab, like Omm Kalthoum, etc., but it is many other things as well.”
Collaboration and fusion
Benali began her musical journey in Belgium in 1987, when spirituality and fusion were on the rise in Europe. She had moved to Brussels from Tunisia to study, and she quickly found a common ground with other musicians through her love of music and easy way with people.
“People were very spiritual at the time. Today it is more commercial, but back then, it was more like the 1970s. There was a certain merging between different cultures,” says Benali.
A combination of homesickness and a wealth of knowledge about her own heritage made Benali more aware of her Arab roots. She recalls her childhood in Tunisia, spending long evenings singing and dancing.
“We only had television from 6-11 pm when I was a child, so this is what we did to pass the time,” she says. “In Belgium, it was really hard, and singing made it easier.”
Benali also found herself discussing many European stereotypes about Arabs, and she says that it was through music that she found a space for dialogue with those stereotypes. European musicians were able to relate more to the music than they ever could to other facets of Arab culture.
“For me, the easiest way to talk about it was through music. People who spoke Flemish or Turkish would pull out their instruments and we would sing together,” she says.
One of her most daring experiments was singing Omm Kalthoum’s “Atlal” (“The Ruins”) with non-Arab musicians, which meant experimenting with different musical compositions for a tune that is epic in the Arab world.
“In all of these songs, the music was different, because I was working with musicians who did not know the music. The question was: How do we interact without knowing each other’s language?”
But in spite of the language barrier – or perhaps because of it, her early musical collaborations gave her a flavor of diversity and spontaneity that she has kept to this day. Her experience with different musicians gave her insight on the commonalities across cultures. As an example, she points to the resemblance of a song she learned in Tunisia to an Iranian tune.
“One day, I was humming a song that little girls sing in the mountains in Tunisia, and someone said, ‘This is an Iranian song.’ I said, ‘How can it be Iranian — this is a Tunisian song from the mountains.’ How did this Belgian man relate this little mountain girl in Tunisia to a little mountain girl in Iran?” she asks.
The combination of Japanese, African, Turkish and European cultures in Brussels allowed Benali to explore the potential for collaboration and fusion in her music. But it was not until 1992 that she performed for a European audience.
“In 1992, I met a gypsy girl in Portugal. We were sitting in a very quiet place, and the moon was high, and we were dancing and singing all night, and afterward she asked me if I would take an opportunity to do a concert,” says Benali. “It is not that singing is about being professional or anything, but music or singing is about enjoying a moment in your life.”
After collaborating and working with different musicians, Benali began to perform regularly in Brussels in 1996. Much to her surprise, the concerts were usually packed with a Belgian audience.
“People always wanted to listen to Omm Kalthoum. There was no dancing or tabla, it was just vocal and oud,” she says. “The audience was all Belgians, and I wanted to understand how they can listen to this. And I found it impossible to translate this into another language. I realized that if I feel it, I could communicate it, because it is impossible to translate it.”
Benali’s surprise that a non-Arab audience could appreciate Omm Kalthoum made her delve deeper into the music and appreciate it in a different way. She later began to include dance in her performances.
“I did not know my country and its value and its beauty until I lived in Paris and Belgium,” she says. “I went back with people from those countries and saw my country through their eyes. For me, our street is normal, it is ugly, but when I went back with foreigners, I saw that there are things I had never seen before.”
From there, Benali began to collaborate regularly with Arab and non-Arab musicians in Europe and in Egypt. From jamming around a campfire with the satirical band Like Jelly in Fayoum, to traveling to play with the Dutch jazz-classical Metropole Orchestra, to playing live with Fathi Salama, Benali has found a voice and a space for herself in all circumstances.
“One day, Fathi Salama called me and said: we have a concert tomorrow, and we will play together without rehearsing. We had a two-hour meeting beforehand, but we did not rehearse at all,” she says. “I do not like rehearsing, because I think it kills the song and fixes it too much.”
Benali’s aversion to rehearsals means that trust and communication become key to her relationship with the musicians who improvise with her on stage.
“As long as we understand each other, we can go places together,” she says. “I like to work with people who are different. It may be difficult for me to communicate with them, we may have a language barrier, but I like to perform with jazz musicians for example, because I do not understand what they do at all. Or people who are very classical — they are more difficult, because they are very traditional. This is nice for me, because I learn to go different places.”
Chasing a revolution
Unlike many musicians, Benali is a strong proponent of sharing her music through social media. She produces most of her music at home, and has made it her mission to share it with her fans for free. And although she readily posts it online, she was still surprised when she found audiences singing along to her songs at concerts in Cairo.
“The old system does not work anymore. Funding does not work anymore, I feel like I made a new system to reach people. I love people and wanted to reach them,” she says.
Benali had made a few visits to Egypt before 2011, but it was in the aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that she, like many underground artists, gained a solid fan base.
“I used to hear pop music everywhere before the revolution, but I don’t hear it anywhere anymore,” she says.
One of the advantages of recording music at home is the ability to produce and upload music in response to events on the ground. Benali gives the example of a song that she composed when a friend went missing during the events of Mohamed Mahmoud in Egypt in 2011.
“He disappeared for three days, and I recorded the song on the spot and uploaded it,” she says. “And then I started to do a lot of pieces like that. It was nice to think about something and record it and send it online. I reached more people this way.”
Beyond music, the rapid pace of change and the headiness of revolution have made it an exciting time for musicians looking to break boundaries and re-interpret heritage. Benali’s original compositions often combine jazz, Latin jazz, gypsy, Berber and Arab music. She finds herself returning to Egypt to perform at very different venues to diverse audiences, from the Kasr El Einy Theater to the Cairo Jazz Club to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
“The revolutions resulted in a lot of openness. The Arab world is changing and so is the world, but the Arab world is boiling,” she says. “There were people before the revolutions that wanted to mix things up, but there are more now.” et