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Imperialism in North Africa: Song, Amina Annabi


North African women have long, rich traditions of vocal and instrumental music. At weddings and other joyous occasions, including religious celebrations, female musicians sing, perform, and dance. One of the most popular singers and composers in Europe today is a Tunisian woman, Amina Annabi, whose music—and life—fuses traditional Arab, Middle Eastern, and West African musical genres with Western music, particularly blues, jazz, reggae, rap, and rock ‘m’ roll. Amina’s is a complicated story, however, since it is not merely the tale of a talented musician making it in the world music movement from the 1980s on. Her life is intertwined with the postcolonial reality of millions of North Africans who reside permanently in European nations; many were born there and are from second- or third-generation migrant families. While they hold legal citizenship in France, the UK, Italy, Spain, or Belgium, their family origins as Muslims, Arabs or Berbers, or Africans often brings rejection or marginalization at worst—at best, partial social and cultural integration.

Annabi was born in Carthage, a suburb of Tunis in 1962. She is the product of a “mixed marriage”—her father is French, her mother Tunisian. Amina’s mother came from a family that boasted gifted female musicians and composers, including her grandmother. The social composition of Carthage in those days was still very culturally diverse, with large Mediterranean expatriate communities; each had its own diverse musical traditions that Annabi intertwines with Tunisian Arab classical forms, such as “Malouf.” In addition, Tunisia has hosted international summer musical festivals for decades in Carthage and Tabarka which brought in vocalists, like James Brown, Tina Turner, Joan Baez, Algerian and Senegalese musicians, and performers from around the world. Thus the young woman was raised in a milieu saturated with heterogeneous musical influences.

In 1975 she went to Paris with her mother, where she pursued music at France’s leading world music station, Radio Nova. Her first recorded album, “Yalil” (Night), included songs like “Belly Dance,” and, reflecting her own background, fused an eclectic range of musical styles characterized as “ethno-techno.” “Yalil” was released in over twenty countries; as a result, in 1991 she was named the “Best Female Singer of the Year” in France. That same year, she joined an international musicians’ peace project to protest the first American invasion of Iraq. In addition, Amina represented France at the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest held in Rome, where she received a second place. Again, in 1994, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist album entitled Paris, which celebrated the French capital. Thus one sees a progression in her career—from first prize winner to actually representing France and French culture in international competitions—by combining the musical traditions of former French colonies with those of Europe or the West. One of her most popular songs is entitled “Yanari”—which means “Life is Difficult”—a piece about migrants, immigration, visas, and the traumas of transnational families. In July 2001, she toured the United States with French musical groups, performing in New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities. One wonders—given the political climate in the United States currently and the fact that a huge number of foreign artists have been refused permission to enter the country—whether she would be allowed now to sing. (She is also a film actress, playing in such films as Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” [1990].)

In many of Amina’s songs, she embraces the old Orientalist and colonial stereotypes of the sensuous depraved Eastern woman and inverts them, making musicial parodies of cultural parodies. Together with a growing number of North African artists, such as the Algerian raï singer Khaled, Amina has managed to break out of the postcolonial cultural and political ghetto experienced by so many African migrants residing in Europe—through art and performance. From the French military depictions of Algerian women done in the 1830s and the colonial postcards of “la Belle Fatima,” we have come to Amina, who demands in one of her most famous songs: “Tell me, in the name of which nation do you raise your voice in my house; he who speaks the loudest is always the one who is right.” (From “Le dernier qui a parlé” or “He Who Has the Last Word.”)

This source is a part of the North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000 teaching module.


The Bad Seed
Me, I am like a bad seed that grows soundlessly without hatred
You can walk on top of me at times but life will always overcome
You do not rule the sky nor the earth nor the angels above my bed.
My Music Has Been Shattered
My music has been shattered, Monsieur
I can no longer awaken, Monsieur
My music has been shattered, Monsieur
I can no longer awaken, Monsieur
Yes, I have again sold my thoughts
For a very small handful
Of electricity, of electricity, of electricity
For a little bit of progress
Wear yourself out, wear yourself out, ah
I must wake up
Wear yourself out, wear yourself out
I must wake up.
Away from Doors that Slam
Away from doors that slam
Away from doors that slam
Away from screams, away from slaps
From evil, from words, from evil
From demonic words . . .
I will not lower my eyes
I will raise them to the sky
And if even rumor has it that
One day you will die because of it
And if I were to die
And if you were to die
It is only a rumor.

How to Cite This Source

"Imperialism in North Africa: Song, Amina Annabi," in World History Commons, [accessed January 18, 2022]