Tunisia earned a permanent place in popular culture via its starring role in the Star Wars franchise as the desert planet Tatooine, home to Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader, and his son, Luke.
Today, Tunisia boasts yet another globe-trotting cultural export: the music group Ÿuma, composed of Rami Zoghlami, 33, and Sabrine Jenhani, 34. Their focus on folk music sung in the Tunisian dialect of Arabic has made the duo a unique phenomenon in North Africa, whose youth often listen to hip hop and pop in a mix of English, French, and Arabic dialects.
I remember starting to listen to Ÿuma soon after I first moved to Morocco two years ago. At that point, I had studied Modern Standard Arabic for a bit more than four years and Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, for several months. I made an effort to immerse myself in Arabic music to improve my proficiency and searched Spotify, whose algorithms suggested that I might enjoy Ÿuma.
It took me little time to appreciate the prescience of Spotify’s recommendation. I found the duo’s soft-spoken songs calming yet moving—even if I barely understood Tunisian Arabic, which differs enough from its Moroccan counterpart that some scholars debate whether the dialects constitute distinct languages.
In any case, I came to consider Jenhani and Zoghlami my favorite Arabic duo and then my favorite music group overall. I began encouraging my Moroccan friends to give Ÿuma a try, only to discover that many of them already had the duo on their playlists.
Eager to learn more about the Tunisian music group that I have been recommending to my friends in Morocco and the United States for the better part of two years, I decided a few weeks ago to contact Jenhani and Zoghlami. A few Instagram messages later, I was talking to my musical idols. They told me about themselves, how they established Ÿuma, and what they expect for the future of their duo—and contemporary folk music in the Arab world as a whole.
Jenhani grew up in the coastal city of Kelibia, and Zoghlami hails from the city of Manouba on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital, Tunis. The pair met when a DJ introduced them at a 2013 music festival. There, they collaborated on “an electro-blues project,” Jenhani singing and Zoghlami playing the guitar.
Jenhani and Zoghlami’s friendship continued over the following years, and they began posting mashups on social media. After developing a following, the two agreed in 2016 to form a duo centered on contemporary folk music in Tunisian Arabic.
“My passion for indie folk is one of the reasons that brought me and Rami together around this common project.”
“At the time I met Rami, we were both passionate about indie folk,” Jenhani told me in a recent email. “My passion for indie folk is one of the reasons that brought me and Rami together around this common project.”
Zoghlami added in a separate interview: “A guitar and two voices, that’s our universe. We sing about love, melancholy, loneliness, and redemption. Our more rock- and metal-oriented musical influences in our younger years have guided us towards this genre.”
The duo chose the name Ÿuma because of its many possible meanings.
“Yuma in Amerindian Cherokee means ‘allies,’ and this is the very essence of our duo,” said Zoghlami. “Later, we found out that Yuma had multiple meanings in multiple languages and dialects: ‘my mother’s son or daughter’ in Berber, ‘dancing in the rain’ in Japanese, and I’d say we poetically adopted all of them.”
Despite Ÿuma’s diverse linguistic heritage, Jenhani and Zoghlami’s partnership remains an unequivocal celebration of the beauty of Tunisian Arabic above all else. In fact, Ÿuma is bringing Tunisian Arabic back to Tunisia’s independent music scene.
Jenhani said of opting to sing in the dialect: “Why not in Tunisian? Tunisian is our mother tongue, it is the language we use every day, it is the language in which I express all my feelings, and it is a language that is constantly in motion. It’s a choice of identity above all because it seemed to me that it was very important to say things sincerely with words that we use on a daily basis.”
The music group’s songs cover a variety of themes, some general and others more specific to the social context of Tunisia. The song “Mestenni Ellil,” for example, addresses the phenomenon of forced marriage.
Other songs cover lighter topics. “Nghir Alik” speaks of love and jealousy: “You are the season, a lighthouse in my fog. [/] I’m blind without your eyes.” “Smak” alludes to childhood, “when words tasted like honey and hands were open wide.”
Jenhani and Zoghlami’s thematic range has helped Ÿuma develop a global fanbase. Zoghlami, who said that Ÿuma has fans in Albania, Canada, Germany, Palestine, and Turkey, recalled an encounter with an anthropologist who came to one of his and Jenhani’s concerts in France. The anthropologist praised the music group’s role in the revitalization of Tunisian Arabic.
I, for one, hope that the duo will one day perform in my current home base: Rabat, the Moroccan capital. Rabat hosts Mawazine, one of the largest annual music festivals in the world, though COVID-19 has put it on hold.
In the immediate term, Jenhani and Zoghlami intend to release their third album in 2022 after a multi-year hiatus. Ÿuma put out its first two albums, Chura and Poussière d’Étoiles, in 2016 and 2018.
In the immediate term, Jenhani and Zoghlami intend to release their third album in 2022 after a multi-year hiatus.
Zoghlami appears ambivalent about what will follow Ÿuma’s third album. “Regarding our musical future, it remains a bit in the dark, a bit like all artists today,” he told me. “The situation for musicians does not change much in Tunisia, but we work every day to improve it.”
The pair sounds more optimistic about the future of folk music in Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world, where musical trends, like social movements, often transcend national borders.
“I think contemporary Arab music will be given the attention it deserves in the coming years,” said Jenhani. “We have experienced a cultural boom since the Tunisian revolution of 2011. The infrastructure of the music industry is improving more and more in Tunisia, as elsewhere in the Arab countries.”
Zoghlami added: “Quite frankly, the day will come, I think, when folk will have its glory in the Arab world.”
At the end of our interview, Zoghlami said of folk music, “It’s not the most acclaimed genre or the easiest to produce, but we are sure that folk is appreciated.”
Ÿuma’s vast audience would agree: the music group boasts over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and almost 40,000 followers on its Instagram account, @yumatheduo. On YouTube, Ÿuma has reached 215,000 subscribers, some songs having millions of listeners: “Nghir Alik,” for instance, shows 6.8 million views. This summer, “Smek” also featured in an episode of the popular Jordanian Netflix limited series AlRawabi School for Girls.
Though I think of myself as Ÿuma’s most devoted fan, I suspect that Jenhani and Zoghlami’s fast-growing, well-deserved fanbase will give me plenty of competition in the years to come.
** Follow Ÿuma on:
Instagram and Twitter: @yumatheduo