A Tunisian musical icon


By Salvatore Morra

The ʻūd depicted in this painting (an ʻūd tunsī) tells a story about the first professional Tunisian-Arab luthier, ʻAbd ʻAzīz Jemaīl (1895-1969). His craftsmanship forms a bridge between unknown Tunisian ʻūd makers of the 19th century and luthiers practising today. The painting itself, ’97X66 Acrylique sur Contre Plaqué‘, by Tunisian painter Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah (b. 1921), offers us a route into the history of Tunisian national identity in all its complexity.

On Saturday June 27th, 2015, when I had been researching the Tunisian ʻūd for some weeks, I took a weekend off to visit el-Marsa, a town on the north east coast of the Tunis gulf beside Sīdī Bou Saʻīd. Many foreigners, largely Italians and Americans who work and study in Tunis, choose to live in el-Marsa. Its two main attractions are a 16th century palace known as ʻAbdalliya, and the famous restaurant Ṣaf ṣāf which has the best handmade brīk and sweet bambālūnī. It was not my first time in el-Marsa, but I went there this time in search of a private gallery, Gallerie Alexandre Roubtzoff, which advertised a new exhibition with tableaux by painters of the “école de Tunis”. A poster featuring a painting of musical instruments awaited me at the front door of the gallery, and among them I recognised an ʻūd tunsī. I had been reading about Tunisian nationalist painters but I had been unsure whether to continue with that line of research until that moment. Of course from then on, I was in search of the painting and the painter himself.

Galerie Alexandre Roubtzoff

Seif Chaouch and his daughter inaugurated this private art gallery in 2014, naming it after the Russian painter Alexandre Roubtzoff (1884- 1949), who lived in Sīdī Bou Saʻīd during the 1920s and painted numerous Tunisian folkloric scenes and landscapes. I was particularly interested to know why the curators chose this painting to represent the exhibition. When we spoke after the visit, Chaouch explained that the theme of music was provocative, and gave curators the chance to present the Tunisian painting school from a new angle. Through music, they could contemplate a history of Tunisia and simultaneously offer a perspective on current music life. As I took up my bag and was about to leave, Chaouch reminded me that Jellāl was still living, that he would be ninety-four years old that summer.

This particular painting was probably painted in the late 1960s. On a pale yellow background of traditionally-decorated tiles, a wide range of Tunisian traditional musical instruments still used at that time (rebāb, ney, qānūn, darbūka, nagharāt, ṭār and ʻūd tūnsī) are leaning on the wall, as if musicians left them there when taking a break. On looking at the painting I tried to imagine the sound of the encounter between instruments and musicians. I looked carefully to distinguish the details portrayed by Jellāl: strings, rosette carving, the pickguard shape, the leather folding at the edge, the four double courses of strings.

Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah painting cropped.jpg
97X66 Acrylique sur Contre Plaqué

Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah is the most prolific painter of musical instruments among the group “école de Tunis” (Bouzid, 1998: 35). This group of Arab pioneer painters (Yahia Turki, Ammar Farhat, ʻAbdelaziz Gorgi, Nello Levy, Edgar Naccache, Emmanuel Bocchieri) that assembled in 1949 was swept up in nationalist sentiment. The cultural heritage of the area, including music (mālūf, sṭambēlī and traditional ensembles) became a subject to paint, and folklore was either left aside or transformed for the nationalist project (Boussabeh, 2002: 7; Bouzid, 1998: 20). During my visit to Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah’s house on the hill of Sīdī Bou Saʻīd, where he moved in 1938 with his family, Jellāl explained that his interest in mālūf and musical instruments had led him to paint musical subjects and use instruments as models; he experimented with historical examples from his family collection to work out designs. Some paintings, like ‘L’atelier du Luthier 10X13’ (1960s), depict musical scenes through typically Tunisian styles of private musical entertainment, or collections of musical instruments as still life, such as “Nature morte au luth tunisien” (2005) and the stamp collection realised in 1957 for the Tunisian republic, which included an ʻūd tūnsī (Bouker, 2013: 335).

A drawing by Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah appeared in 1938 in the article “De l’état actuel de la musique arabe” [“On the current condition of Arab music”] , published in the women’s magazine Leïla: revue illustrée de la femme (June 1938, 10-11). Leïla was published in Tunis between 1936 and 1940, and this article was its first formulation of a Tunisian national music. Tunisian music as such had developed following the landmark Cairo congress 1932 and the subsequent foundation of the Rashidia music institute in 1935. The magazine presented articles on subjects including art, literature, literary criticism, history, theater, cinema, music and radio; it offered a perspective on local lifestyles and used a humanist discourse to involve local elites in the resisting of French assimilation, and to advance national consciousness (Mamelouk, 2008). In the picture there is a jaūk ensemble (from left to right: rebāb, ʻūd tūnsī, ney, nagharāt), with Tunisian musicians sitting on a carpet in a room where a window behind them overlooking a minaret symbolising their Arab Muslim identity. Although the drawing is impressionistic, we can infer from the context that the ʻūd is an ʻūd tūnsī.


At the beginning of our conversation Jellāl looked at me and said: “I painted these instruments because I was attracted by the shape, the form of them”. For him, painting seems to be a conscious visual memorisation of objects. Painting musical instruments in this way could be understood as a form of participation in music itself, in mālūf and in its sentiments. The creative act is a passage where the ʻūd of the artist captures the imagination, and the materiality of the object becomes vehicle for that memory. From the richly painted details, I was sure Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah owned a Tunisian ʻūd, and when he welcomed me into his living room, it was there in a corner next to an old wooden chest. A dark wooden face was pierced by three moons, perhaps Lebanon cedar or mahogany. Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah said that it was a family instrument, and it turns out to be the only known surviving example of Tunisian ʻūd made by ʻAbd ʻAziz Jemaīl. The label shows the date of 10th of August 1923.

In North Africa it was not the custom for makers to identify themselves on their instruments until the beginning of 20th century, but it is known that earlier makers were often Jewish-Tunisian, and were usually musicians. ʻAbd ʻAzīz Jemaīl was certainly influenced by this late 19th century Jewish-Tunisian tradition, given that from the 1920s onwards luthiery was mainly in the hands of carpentry wood-workers of the Tunis medina, where Jemaīl had his first job (Jemaīl, 2016). He spent his early life in the Jewish quarter el-Hara (known as Hafsia), close to one of the main Tunis Medina street Romdan Bey, and the instruments were made in Jemaīl’s workshop in 3 Sīdī Mfarrej (Jemaīl, 2016: 88, 94). Although Jemaīl reports in a radio interview transcribed in his granddaughter Kalthoum Jemaīl’s book that “he was a self-taught maker” (Jemaīl, 2016: 99), the influence of other makers, such as Clemént Bardah or Ḥāīm Bshīrī, is unmistakable here. One of the particular interests of this particular ʻūd tūnsī is that it predates the earliest surviving ‘oriental’ (Egyptian/Syrian style) ʻūd made by Jemaīl.

The face is probably made of three pieces of course-gained wood. A piece of walnut edged with bones serves as a pick-guard, in the baklava shape that is still standard in Tunisian luthiery. The invention of this layered pastry have been claimed by both Greek and Turks (Perry, 1994: 87), and was most probably imported to Tunisia through Beycal families. A similar form can be also observed in the traditional Tunisian pastry maqrūḍ, made with semolina and stuffed with cooked dates. It is now essential to the identity of the instrument.

Leather is attached around half the instrument edge where the face joins the shell, protecting it from moisture from the player’s body. The neck (24cm) has a finger board that might be walnut. Large strips of bones on either side of the fingerboard stop at 1/5 of the vibrating string length (60cm) rather than continuing until the end of the neck. The bridge painted in black is relatively thick and long 18cm, its papillion form is once again typical of North African instruments.

The pegbox is also common to ʻūds tūnsī, made perhaps of maple as well, with an angle of nearly 90°, carved from one piece of wood and painted black. It is 23cm long and thick 4cm, and it ends as usual in a gentle flowery ornament. It contains 8 simple pegs, possibly made of maple, also painted black and distanced from each other 4.5cm. The body has a depth of 19cm, and is constructed in the Tunisian pear-shape style, from 15 alternate strips (probably walnut and maple) which continue up the back of the neck. The shell as usual is locked by a strip of wood around the edge of the body, closing the ribs firmly. The face of 48cm at the widest point has one rosette 13cm from the end of the neck and two rosettes 24cm from the edge of the body. The pair of rosettes have a geometrical design, a combination of 8 diamonds, 1 circle, 4 semi-circles and 4 triangle. This design is the most common, and is reproduced on contemporary models as well. It can be also observed on the 19th century ʻūd of the Horniman Museum in London.

This story of the ʻūd tūnsī, as a part of Tunisian national identity, can be traced in the context of French colonial administration, anticolonial resistance movements, and nationalist political programmes cultivated through the first half of the 20th century. This ʻūd and the tableau suggest that music and painting contributed, after independence (1960s-1970s), to the dismantling of colonial ideology and the restructuring of a national identity fueled by cultural resistance. This ʻūd tūnsī extends our knowledge of Tunisian music history in general, and of ʻAbd ʻAzīz Jemaīl’s craftsmanship in particular. Additionally, the presentation of this Tunisian ʻūd in a gallery today indicates how historical objects can be rediscovered through visual art, and imported into contemporary life.

Thanks to Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah and his wife for welcoming me in their home and to Nadia Mamelouk for sharing with me her library of Leila editions. Thanks also to the Gallerie Alexandre Roubtzoff for allowing me to take photographs of Jellāl Ben ʻAbdallah’s painting. 


Bouker, Amin. 2013. Jellal Ben Abdallah, Sous l’Artifice, la Simplicité. Éditions Cérès. Tunis.

Boussabeh, Feten. 2002. Etude de la Musique a travers la Peinture Tunisienne du XXéme siecle. Mémoire de fin d’etudes. Institute Superieur de Musique de Tunis.

Bouzid, Dora. 1998. Ecole de Tunis. Alif – Les éditions de la Méditerranée. Tunis.

Jemaïl, Kalthoum. 2016. Sheikh al-Fannanine le Maȋtre des Musiciens, Abdelaziz Jemaïl et le Siècle de la Tunisie Moderne. Edition Universelle, Tunis.

Mamelouk, Nadia Nadja. 2008. Anxiety in the Border Zone: Transgressing Boundaries in Leïla: revue illustrée de la femme (Tunis, 1936-1940) and in Leïla: Hebdomadaire Tunisien Indépendant (Tunis, 1940-1941). PhD., University of Virginia.

Perry, Charles. 1994. The Taste for Layered Bread Among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava. Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. Ed. Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper. I.B. Tauris Publishers, London, New York. 85-91.


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