The Tunisian Frank Sinatra

My friend Claire Belhassine, whom I met through Cassie after they met at London Film School, recently released her directorial debut documentary Papa Hédi

…a 21st century portrait of one of Tunisia’s best loved musicians, HĂ©di Jouini, through the eyes of his British Granddaughter. A contemporary documentary searching for traces of HĂ©di’s spirit, we uncover via encounters with colleagues, family and cultural commentators his public and private legacy and discover why his music still lives on today.

Claire was in her late 20s when she discovered that her grandfather was the Frank Sinatra of the Arab World. HĂ©di Jouini’s songs and compositions still resonate twenty years after his death. Reprised as the theme tune for a popular Tunisian soap opera and the holding music for Tunisia’s leading mobile network; covered by pop singers, including international superstar Shakira; and sung by 5 year old street kids as they kick their footballs back and forth – they are part of the TUNISIAN STORY.

After his death, Papa Hedi’s six children stopped talking to each other. Behind the usual story of siblings fighting over their inheritance, lies the powerful dynamic of men’s and women’s roles in 1930’s Tunis and the sad but often funny story of Papa HĂ©di’s divided family – separated across continents, fighting over royalties, competing to define their father’s legacy.

The film was an official selection of California Arab Film Festival, with screenings in San Jose and Berkeley. Claire contacted Cassie to ask if she would attend the screenings and film various interviews and Q&A sessions. Cassie was filming in LA the weekend of the San Jose screening (with the good camera, sadly) so it fell to me to try and get what they wanted. So I drove down and met up with the festival organizers to get what Claire wanted.

(I had to use GPS because I do not know the way to San Jose.)

Before the screening, there was a performance of some of Hédi Jouini’s songs by a band of Tunisian musicians. They were playing a variety of instruments, some recognisable, some not. I asked the band leader Al Kallel what they were:

  • Nay, a kind of cane flute
  • Qanun, a stringed lap instrument like a zither or autoharp
  • Violin
  • Oud, a stringed instrument related to the similar-looking and -sounding lute.
  • Tar, a kind of drum
  • Riq, a kind of tambourine

They played five or six songs, very much in the Tunisian/Arabic style, with distinctive quavering vocals and completely alien (to me) structures. They weren’t alien to the packed audience at the screening, however. When the band leader listed the songs they would be playing, many people reacted with delight, and at various points they were clapping along with what I assumed to be the chorus. Al sang, and Jouini’s daughter Samia accompanied him, to great effect.

A little more about the audience. They were a mixture of local arts crowd, and Tunisian folks. It was nice to see quite a few people with white American partners. For the most part they were people who were clearly fans of Jouini and his music. The film did not disappoint them. Music in the film was obviously mostly by HĂ©di Jouini himself, or covers of his most beloved songs by various people, including one of his sons who reinterpreted them in a jazz style. One of my favourite moments was a group of kids on the street all singing one particular song (“Destiny”), which had been used as the theme for a popular TV melodrama. In addition to that, Claire’s husband Francois (aka Franz Kirmann) provided some excellent atmospheric music from his project Piano Interrupted, a collaboration between him and musician and composer Tom Hodge. This took the form of samples of the score, broken down, reversed and otherwise manipulated to create some very effective moments.

The film had various locations. Tunis, obviously. Paris, which has a large Tunisian community. Claire’s travels brought her to San Francisco to interview her aunt Samia, and stayed with Cassie and I in our flat up on the hill in Noe Valley. While there, she took some lovely shots of SF from our roof, and I spotted these straightaway in the film – one looking down at 25th Street and the city beyond, and one looking up the foggy hill toward my beloved Sutro Tower.

The film followed Claire as she went in search of her relatives and the places they were born and raised. One touching moment showed her father visiting the apartment where he lived for most of his childhood. One of the themes was estrangement from family, but there were several amusing moments of siblings bickering while remembering their father. It was a thoughtful, touching and revealing film, which said a lot about the differences in culture between Jouini as a famous man in a male-centric world, as a Muslim married to a Jewish woman, and as a driven poet and artist.

After the film, I quickly packed up and dashed out to get some audience reactions and interviews. Al cornered some people in the lobby, and we shot some clips of them saying what they liked about the film. Reactions were mostly positive (I could tell, even when they were speaking Arabic) – in fact the only negatives were that the film didn’t have enough of Jouini’s music, or didn’t go into enough detail about one thing or another. People wanted more!

At the second screening in Berkeley, the setup was pretty much the same, only this time there was a Q&A session after the film with Claire’s father and Aunt Samia. It was a treat to see them do the sibling bickering live, and it was a treat to be able to see this film, see the folks in it up close and talk to them, hear the audience’s reactions, and be a part of people’s enjoyment of this Tunisian story. Jouini has  a French Wikipedia page, no English one, but you can see the huge list of songs he wrote. It’s no wonder he was so well known and beloved in his home country. This film gave a very personal insight into a legend.

Totally unrelated anecdote. After the first screening and interviews, I hadn’t eaten, so before hitting the road I went to diner chain Johnny Rockets for a burger and ice tea. I was sat in my red vinyl padded booth, enjoying my burger, checking out the non-functional vintage tabletop jukebox, when a group of young folks came in. They looked like they’d been studying or something – they all had big backpacks full of what looked like binders and so on. They were an interesting mix of demographics, but they all had something in common. They all looked kinda nerdy.

They sat in the big corner booth behind me, so I couldn’t see what they were doing. When I finished my meal and stood up to leave, I turned and saw they they each had a big spread of cards in front of them, and they were playing what I guess was Magic: The Gathering. Nice to think they could all just hang out in the diner and play what looks like a complex but social game.

Family, community, arts, entertainment, social cohesion. All that.