Words and Photography by Liz Garcia
Tunisian singer-songwriter, Emel Mathlouthi, along with Seattle artist, Briana Marela, gave an intimate performance on May 15, 2107, at the Winningstad Theatre, one of the five venues of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.
The lights in the venue went out, the screen behind the stage lit up to an indigo blue, and the night kicked off with Briana Marela. She opened with title-track “All Around Us,” off her 2015 album, and in an instant she captured the attention of every listener in the room with her slow and warming vocals as she sang the chorus, “If you love me say it now and mean it.” If audience members thought they had a generalized idea of what the rest of Marela’s performance would be like, they were definitely taken by surprise. While her demeanor and the opening track gave off a soft and sweet folk vibe, her next song, “Quit,” was the complete opposite. The single off her upcoming album, Call It Love, was not only louder, but also more electronically charged.
Also included in Marela’s set was “Take Care of Me,” off All Around Us. It was impressive watching her sing into the microphone with so much emotion while she controlled the background tracks and instrumentals all on her own. Before wrapping up her show, she played “Surrender,” a perfect lighthearted track to match Marela’s energy at the end of her show. After, she smiled and kindly thanked the crowd.
The electro-fused beat continued as Emel Mathlouthi slowly glided onto stage. Right from the start Mathlouthi performed with an immense passion. One of the standout qualities of Mathlouthi’s music is her songwriting. Every single song of hers tells a story that’s important to her. Because much of her music is not in English, Mathlouthi would take a moment to translate track titles for the crowd and give a short explanation of what the lyrics mean.
On top of her songwriting is the rich instrumentation on almost every track. Many of her electronica tracks are met with string instrumentation. Mathlouthi’s set included many songs from her new album, Ensen, which translates to mean, “human.” Halfway through she played “Ensen Dhaif,” one of her latest hits. The track is fast paced with a heavy jungle drum beat but, of course, Mathlouthi’s vocals soared over everything else. And when she wasn’t singing, she was dancing, letting the music move through her body like a current.
With so much turmoil going on throughout the world, Mathlouthi shared a message of optimism with the audience before closing her set with “Fi Kolli Yawmen.” The song is a bonus track off her album Ensen, but it is also a song about hope. It seemed there wasn’t a single person in the theatre that was not in awe of Mathlouthi. When she finished, she took a graceful bow and the crowd applauded her; among them was Briana Marela applauding Mathlouthi’s performance.
After the show, both Mathlouthi and Marela were in the lobby of the Center for Arts greeting fans, which goes to show that on top being amazing musicians these two women are also great people.