Several Tunisian artists have been making an impact in recent years, mostly spread around Europe, in France and Belgium. There’s Ammar 808, in Brussels, Deena Abdelwahed, living in Toulouse, and Ifriqiyya Electrique, who are dotted around three French cities, but mostly in Perpignan. Two out of these three largely electronic acts are signed to the always inspiring and adventurous Glitterbeat label, itself based in Hamburg, Germany.
But there is also Azu Tiwaline, who dwells deep down in the Tunisian part of the Sahara desert, around the city of Tozeur, next to the Chott el Djerid salt lake. Her primary concern is the cultivation of a powerfully pulsing dub electronica, one not as fractured as the form’s Jamaican originators, but more descended from the tranced filtrations of Adrian Sherwood and Bill Laswell, sensitively sleek and incrementally throbbing.
Tiwaline is a child of European raves, of techno and DJ culture, particularly in France, where she connected with the I.O.T label around two decades ago. She’s previously performed as DJ Loan. “Some friends started to get some machines, like rhythm box, synthesizer, samplers,” Tiwaline recalls. “So I asked them to show me how to use them. I was around 17 years old. I was more fascinated by live music than DJ-ing, since the beginning. So I bought my first rhythm box, and different toys, and my first vinyl was released when I was 19 years old.”
Tiwaline has been notably prolific during these virus-times, devoting herself to recording, and releasing a sequence of albums and EPs, which are usually available as vinyl. Her Draw Me A Silence arrived as two separate vinyl LPs, and is also available as a single CD. Tiwaline is primarily beat orientated, with percussion usually to the fore, a bass thrum acting like a magnified frame drum interior. She often chooses a portentous mood-construction, with swirling soundscapes, sometimes scattered with metal percussion, or marimba sounds, perhaps with a wooden flute swirling to evoke a desert trance state. The meshing production also holds currency on the dance floors outside North Africa, with a particular tautness to the rhythms, an oily seepage of bass lines. “Organ Dub Warriors” is one of Tiwaline’s selections that radiates closest to a Jamaican dub (tem)plate.
“Mostly, I start with the rhythm section, drums and bass line, to find the groove,” she explains. “Or I'm searching to create an atmosphere to let me in afterwards, with other musical elements. So I could say that I never start with the melody.”
Tiwaline loves the old 1970s Jamaican platters, of course. “Yes, for sure, but what I listen to mostly is dub electronic stuff, the fusion between dub and techno, especially in late ’90s, with the incredible Berlin scene influence.”
Tiwaline’s music resonates with such an impressive beat-pulse that it seems surely inevitable that she’s a percussionist. Well, yes and no: “Not at all,” she says, modestly. “I started to learn djembe when I was in Ivory Coast, where I grew up. And I'm always pleased nowadays to play derbouka, tombak, or daf [drums]. But as soon as I discovered electronic music, I focused on learning how to program them, so sometimes I record my own sounds, and afterwards I make a proper edit on my computer. I like to change the way to approach the beginning of the construction, in order to be always opened up to new things, new ways of creating. I hate habits in general, in all aspects of life...”
Besides her impressive 2020 flow of quality releases for I.O.T, Tiwaline also forged a fresh link with Livity Sound, a vinyl-only label based in Bristol, England. Magnetic Service featured the French electroacoustic percussionist Cinna Peyghamy on half of its four EP tracks, further enhancing Tiwaline’s core love of beat-centralization. It sounds like he’s providing actual melodies via the hanging resonances of skin and metal, either self-processed, or shaped by Tiwaline herself. There’s more space in these EP pieces, aligned more to the often stripped dubscapes of Adrian Sherwood, though minimalist and meditative in nature. “Terremer” has a fierce bass thrust, and a jabbing beat-front, but it’s not even one of the Peyghamy-guesting tracks.
Your scribe wondered whether Tiwaline’s prime language is either Berber or Arabic. “My main language is French, as my mother was Tunisian and my father is Cambodian, so when I was little they were speaking French together. In Tunisia, nobody speaks Berber. It’s particular how Berber culture has been completely absorbed by Arabic in Tunisia. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing left of Berber culture here, compared to Morocco or Algeria where it has survived, and still lives.”
Tiwaline has frequently toured around the globe during the last two decades or more, mostly around Europe, in her DJ Loan persona. “I live between Tunisia and France anyway,” she explains. “My son lives in France, most of my friends and family, and my work partners are in France, so I'm always traveling from there to here, and when the virus allows, I guess I will play around Europe, and other places, I hope. I'm not so much connected to the Tunisian scene, but maybe that will come later. I've been coming here for more than 20 years now, as my mother was living here. But it has been three years that I live here now, since she left me this little paradise to take care of, a little palm tree, and a beautiful house in the oasis. Our family has been here for many centuries. I'm really a hermit, you know! That's why I came to the Sahara, and feel so good here...”
Deejay Unqanny dons his trailing robes, circulating through the desert surround-sounds of Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria and beyond, eventually alighting on Sheffield, England, 1982 …