Dr Ruth Davis (University of Cambridge)

Wednesday 31 May 2017, 4.00PM

‘Remembering (and Unremembering) the Jewish Past through Popular Song in Tunisia’

My lecture will explore different ways in which Tunisians have negotiated the rupture caused by the mass exodus of the indigenous Jewish population around the mid-twentieth century through the medium of popular song.  In Tunis, as in other Arab cities in the early twentieth century, Jews played a disproportionate role in professional musical life; they were particularly associated with the ‘ughniyya — a new type of popular song that arose with the emerging mass media. Characterized by simple strophic structures, earthy, colloquial language and the use of modes, rhythms and instruments from the wider Mediterranean and Levant, the early ughniyya laid the foundation for future developments in Tunisian popular song.

With the rise of the nationalist movement, however, the cosmopolitan songs were denigrated as decadent and corrupt; with the mass exodus of Jews following independence in 1956, they disappeared from mainstream musical life. Yet they continued to be sung at communal celebrations and (with Hebrew texts) in the synagogues among the remaining Jews on the island of Djerba, where the songs served as a nostalgic link to a vanished era in which the community’s dual Tunisian-Jewish identity remained unchallenged and intact.

Since the late 1980s, Tunisian Muslims have attempted to rediscover and rehabilitate the popular songs of the protectorate era, considering them a vital part of their Tunisian cultural heritage. While some have acknowledged and celebrated the songs’ former Jewish associations, others have ignored or actively erased them by presenting the repertory as timeless, anonymous folklore. Drawing on successive field trips and sources such as commercial films, audio recordings, printed song collections and popular biographies, I explore the songs’ changing place in individual and collective memory and their sometimes contradictory roles as markers of identity and belonging among both Jewish and Muslim communities.


Ruth F. Davis is Life Fellow in Ethnomusicology at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge. She has published and broadcast extensively on music of the Mediterranean, focusing particularly on Tunisia and Mandatory Palestine, music and nationalism, cultural memory, the intellectual history of ethnomusicology, and on art, sacred and popular music of the modern Middle East. Recent projects include her edition of Robert Lachmann’s “Oriental Music” Broadcasts: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine (A-R Editions, 2013; recipient of an Association of Recorded Sound Collections 2014 Award for Excellence) and her edited book Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). She chairs the ICTM Study Group on Mediterranean Music Studies and is Music Section editor for the Encyclopaedia of Islam.Her current research on popular song and memory in contemporary Tunisia is supported by a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust.

Location: Sally Baldwin D Block: D003