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Being a musician is an extraordinary job – Interview with Sabrine (Singer & Songwriter)

Being a musician is an extraordinary job – Interview with Sabrine (Singer & Songwriter)
September 18, 2018 Annett
16 min read

Sabrine Jenhani, also known as Chupee Do, is an independent singer and songwriter. Passionate about music, she created together with her friend Rami Zoghlemi the duo “YÜMA” in 2015. The duo performs Tunisian acoustic music and deep-folk. They have become famous in Tunisia almost overnight thanks to their YouTube cover versions.

In February, YÜMA launched their second album “Ghbar Njoum” (“Star Dust” in English). Discover and follow YÜMA on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Soundcloud. The best option will be for sure to go to Tunisia to see them performing live, and like Chupee told me “we will soon come to see you at your home, in your country, in your city!”

When I met Sabrine for the interview, we had a long chat beforehand in a coffee place in La Marsa. The café was kind of noisy so we decided to look for a better place and we found the perfect one: right at the beach, with the sun in our faces and the sound of the Mediterranean Sea behind us.  

Discover Sabrina's Story

Each person in unique – Sabrine’s story as an independent singer and songwriter in Tunisia

With the sun at its peak, I ask Sabrine to tell me more about her personal story. She plays with the sand, smiles timidly and says “my personal story is long but I will try to be brief.” She starts by telling me more about YUMA. “I met Rami in an electro-blues project at an electro festival in Hammamet called ‘Ephemeral’. We immediately understood that we have a lot of musical affinities to share together. We decided to launch the YUMA project at the end of 2015 and soon released our first album ’Chura’.”

With a smile on her lips, she continues to tell her story and that of her generation. “Since we started, we have performed at some very interesting festivals in Tunisia such as Hammamet International Festival, Sicca Jazz at Kef, the Carthage Music Days etc. and now we turn a little. We have a great audience that encourages us a lot. It’s a young audience that is especially avid for new music, change, and dreams. An audience passionate about music, but also the story that connects us all together.”

I always wanted to be an artist

Sabrine underlines that she always wanted to be an artist and that she has always been linked to art, without realizing it. “First, I did the school of fine arts in Tunis where I learned to be an engraver. Even as I was good and very creative, I didn’t manage to find a job in this field. Then, I tried to find another career where I could highlight assets such as the fact that I am francophone. For example, I worked for a private media agency and later three years as a cultural journalist. This allowed me to stay in touch with the arts sector and I participated in film and theater performances, painting and sculpture exhibitions etc. All these areas that constitute the cultural scene in Tunisia and that have given me lots of ideas afterward.”

“Being connected to the artistic sector was still bathing in something that fascinated me most – art. I was able to acquire certain qualifications like communication that later helped me a lot when I started the duo. We also had a lot of interesting contacts thanks to that. Rami, for example, also studied film which helped us a lot to work on our image as YÜMA. In fact, there are many things that helped us to create “Yuma” as it is today.” Once again, I feel that life often simply falls into place like it should be. You just need to collect all the necessary items to unlock the next level like in Super Mario or any other video game.

I never stopped singing

During all these different professional experiences, she never stopped singing. Sabrine reveals, “I started singing at the age of 15 when I sang in different high school groups. It has always been my extracurricular activity, after school, or during the weekend. In fact, this is what I did to escape my daily life”, she laughs. Sabrine also continued to sing when she went to university. “In the morning, I studied, and in the evening, I had performances. I sang in hotels, restaurants, bars, lounges for up to 2- 4 hours. This helped me a lot to finance my studies. It also got me as close as possible to the scene. It allowed me to really be the interpreter that I am today. I am no longer shy and thanks to that I understood that my mind is much more stimulated when I create. I had to do this for 10 years to realize that it was satisfying but not enough, that I wanted to leave a trace.”

Within a few days here in Tunisia, I heard this statement more than once – also Hanna said she wanted to leave something to the world – love. We all want to leave a trace, give something from our love or created by our love to the world to make it a better and happier place. I think that’s the thing to do, even if some will say we are overly romantic or idealistic.

We often do things for a reason

Talking about destiny, she says “I am not superstitious, but I believe in signs. What I mean is that we often do things for a reason. All that I have been able to do before, contributes today to my present existence. My fine arts training as a professional and artistic engraver helped my eye to distinguish beauty. My ears were stimulated through my music. I often took a critic angle and reflected on different arts. Subsequently, the fact that I was a journalist enabled me to meet a lot of interesting people that stimulated me again in this sense. Thanks to that I also know what I want to do with my life. It was necessary to go through all of this to be so certain today of my stature and my positioning in relation to my work.”

Looking at her and the sea, I totally agree with her viewpoint. In India, you find the same ‘Super Mario’ wisdom called the ‘4 Laws of Spirituality’. It states that nothing happens by chance. Every person who comes into our lives is there for a reason. What happens is the only thing that could have happened. Everything is perfectly imperfect. Whenever something starts or ends, it’s the right time, everything happens when it should happen.

I cannot get up today and tell myself ‘in 15 years I will have a prosperous life’

Today Sabrine is an independent artist, “it’s not an easy or reassuring job” she underlines. “For example, I cannot get up today and tell myself ‘in 15 years I will have a prosperous life, a house, a dog, a cat and a husband next to me, and I will be happy and I will not have to worry about sickness or death or anything’”. I exactly know what she means and ask myself why everyone has this perfect happy family picture as the ideal world in their heads…

Sabrine continues saying that she can’t be sure about the future because even today she has no insurance, like a lot of young people everywhere I add in my head. “But I have this assurance of doing the job that makes me happy. So, getting up in the morning, I smile. I don’t go to work sulking. I think we just have to make the right choices that make us happy because we don’t last. We must live the present moment fully and truly. You have to be sincere with yourself”.

An ordinary day does not exist for me

When I ask Sabrine what a typical working day looks like for her as a singer and songwriter, she laughs and says “an ordinary day does not exist, since the work in itself that I do is not ordinary. On an ‘ordinary’ day I get up at 9 am and set my goals for the day. I say: I have two hours of mailing, two hours of writing, three hours of composition and I have a concert in the evening that I have to prepare”.

She continues explaining that the duo does not work under a production. “Rami and I, we are the production. We are responsible for everything that happens. The concerts are organised by us and our partners. We have the chance to work with a Tunisian management (Meriem Zghidi) and with a relay production in France (Bertrand Dupont) who helps us a lot to set up these things, but we often check if everything is going well.” Trust, but verify, as we say in Germany.

We constantly question ourselves and our existence

Next to these organisational aspects, Sabrine says, there is, of course, the creative component that is constantly present in the life of an artist. “We are continually questioning what modern music is. How does music evolve in Tunisia? We also question ourselves and our existence, because the texts are ultimately a questioning of ourselves and our relationship to others, to space, to love … finally all that !” she smiles. “It seems to be intellectual, said like that, but it is our questioning to all. We all ask ourselves such intimate questions it seems” and I agree.

Artists continuously fight several battles

Sabrine continues talking about other aspects of her work like community management, image creation/branding, the presence on radio and the media. “All this work is ‘thankless’ because it is not recognized by those who see us on stage. They see two artists doing the work they dreamed of doing. It’s beautifully seen like that, but it’s not just that. There are also all these behind the scene tasks that are important to the propulsion of an artist.”

Knowing several artists, I know that it’s not always easy to be one. To put it in Sabrine’s words, “there is the difficulty of choosing a path that has not been chosen by everyone. Getting up in the morning and not having that certainty of the next day is in itself a difficulty. You have to fight several battles during the day and several battles during the year. There are so many battles in the course of life, but, fortunately, this also allows us to be strong and to be assertive. It helps to be more certain on how much we hold on to this work, to this passion and to this love we have for music.”

In regards to the music sector in Tunisia, she points out that young artists are unfortunately not very encouraged. As independent artists, they are free from imposed constraints, but as Sabrine tells me “it’s also very difficult to be everywhere at the same time, to do everything at once. It is very difficult not to be encouraged neither verbally nor financially.”

It costs a lot of money to make music

Like with the ‘thankless’ work there are also other aspects of being a singer that are not that obvious to the public. She plays with the sand and says, “it costs money to make music and it’s expensive to be ambitious in this sector. If you want to make clips that make you dream, to make shows that are staged with images, with a good sound, accompanied by a band behind – all that costs money! It costs money to sponsor a page on Facebook, it costs money to travel to the places, it costs money to have a rehearsal room. We do not have all that.”

Nevertheless, the duo tries to put in place a kind of structure that allows them to do all that within the existing boundaries and I think they do it quite well. Like me, Sabrine sees difficulties not as such. For her “they are the essence for the engine to keep running. If the next day, for example, we get up with zero questioning and zero difficulty, life will seem to be too simple to live. Maybe we wouldn’t create as good music as we do now if we were comfortable and in our comfort zone.” So true I think.

Being out of my comfort zone has allowed me to fulfill my dream

She remembers that “the first big jump I made in my life was when I got up and said ‘I’m going to leave my company and I’m going to have a music career’. This was the first step where I really decided to get out of my comfort zone. So why am I going to look for this comfort zone today? Being out of my comfort zone is something that has allowed me to fulfill my dream.” Like Sabrine said once before, you have to be or feel a bit uncomfortable to question yourself. She smiles placidly and says, “we cannot be happy and ask ourselves the right questions. When we are happy, we are happy and that’s it. When we are uncomfortable, unhappy, or sad, it is where we ask ourselves the deepest questions that lead us to the best things. This is our engine in fact!” This little secret I know very good myself. That’s why I love both, the bad and the good times in life.

Every day and every minute is a surprise to me

When asked about what surprised her, she smiles and simply says, “every day is a surprise. It’s a job that’s exciting every minute. When we release an album, we don’t know if it will please, if the reaction of the public will be positive. We have to test the waters and see if we share the same vision of the world. We are there, we see things, we see the world and we present it to others. Do people adhere to this project? Do people see the world as we see it or not? Just that, it’s a surprise.”

Sabrine also talks about the insecurities linked to the live shows. “We cannot be sure if people, besides loving our music, will love our character, because we are talking to these people during our shows. Our audience knows us only as the musicians Sabrine and Rami, but they are much more intimate and closer to us. That too is a surprise. It’s as if I meet you for the first time and I know you through your book. If, for example, you are a writer and I meet you, I really appreciate you as a person even more than the book. I think you are someone wonderful and surprising. This is exactly what happens each time we meet the public or other artists.”

“We can’t be sure what will happen. There is no one in the world who can say ‘This song will be a success’. Only a producer will say that but never an artist. The artist must doubt, it’s his job to doubt and ask questions. To be certain means that one has stopped being sensitive”, she concludes. I think that’s a really beautiful statement and a great job description.

Believe in yourself, life is rigged in your favour

What does a rising star of the Tunisian musical scene recommend to other young people and musicians? Sabrine underlines the importance of believing in oneself. “You have to be certain of your choice and be aware that you will encounter obstacles, but that it’s not these obstacles that will prevent us from doing what we want to do. You have to believe in yourself and do things fully, never halfway. Even as we have the chance to fail, we also have the opportunity to learn. Look at the glass half full!” Exactly, and as Rumi, the Persian philosopher said, ‘live life as if everything is rigged in your favour!

Be curious

So what’s her philosophy of life? Sabrine tells me, “there is not ONE philosophy of life. A funny and insightful phrase came when you asked me this question. It’s ‘I was born out of curiosity’. We are curious to see what could be the extension of us and how a miniature ego of us could look like. Among the things that are also important in this life cycle are the questions specific to a certain age. At the age of 10, we ask ourselves questions that do not arise at the age of 20 or 30 years. The philosophy that I have always imposed on myself is, first of all, to be curious. As curious as at 10 years, but not to be as stubborn. I will always give myself the chance to re-evaluate situations, things, and experiences. If with 10 years, I said no, maybe with 20 years I will say yes. I always leave the chance to evolution and let curiosity lead the boat.” And again I think me too and smile.

I’m afraid I’m not right about my current choices

When asked about her greatest fear, Sabrine starts laughing and admits, “well, I’m afraid of cockroaches to make it simple after all these quite deep and philosophical speeches. I try to overcome my fear because I cannot be afraid of a cockroach like a 10-year-old child. Not being able to face this fear at the age of 30 years is ridiculous. You have to renew yourself and make the effort to overcome your fears. They are often things that our parents have taught us or the tradition in which we grew up. You have to ask yourself why you can’t overcome your fear if it’s still legitimate. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt when you have to and don’t be hard on yourself even if you are afraid.”

She adds more seriously, “I’m afraid that I’m not right about my current choices. It’s normal to be in doubt because it’s part of the excitement of the present moment. And in terms of hope, I hope I’m right!”

How is it to live in… ? – Sabrine’s vision on Tunisia

Tunisia is hungry for democracy and modernity

When I ask Sabrine how she experiences life in Tunisia, she gives a very self-reflected response whose formulation makes me laugh. “Living in Tunisia is a very interesting life experience,” she says. Sabrine explains more seriously, “opportunities are really everywhere, in all sectors and in all areas. Given that, Tunisia is first a modern country, then a country in full expansion that comes fresh out of a revolution. Tunisia is hungry for democracy and eager for modernity too.

In Tunisia, life is good, we do not stress about life

Her answer about the general atmosphere of living in Tunisia coincides with my observations and feelings. She says, “Tunisia, I like to call it a village, because when we travel, we see that everything is going at a very fast pace, as in Europe for example, where people are continually stressed. In Tunisia, life is good, everyone has a fairly quiet pace, and people like to do things by taking their time. I see it as a positive point because we do not stress with life. We take our time, we do things well, we do not kill us to do several tasks at the same time. There are people who may be laughing at that or criticizing my way of seeing things but that’s the way it is. We are not an overdeveloped country, we must go and evolve slowly.”

Tunisia encourages entrepreneurs to take action

Talking about development, Sabrine says, “the current Tunisia of 2017 encourages projects and entrepreneurs to engage in the fields of trade, economy, and tourism. Whatever the project – micro, mini, or big – they are encouraged. It is widely known that you can do really good business where there is a crisis.”

Tunisians, stop believing that the grass is greener elsewhere

Sabrine stresses that “we cannot go and prove ourselves in Europe in 2017, it is not possible anymore. The market has no place for foreigners or for Tunisians.” I agree that it is very difficult if you haven’t an innovative idea, the skills, contacts and/or money.

She underlines that she would like to explicitly address the Tunisians who are leaving. “Stop believing that the grass is greener elsewhere, it is not true. There are opportunities in Tunisia! You just have to put all the effort you could have put in Europe. Put them here and you will surely have good results. You just have to believe it. The challenge is to persevere, to be positive and to believe in your country. That’s where you have to invest.”

Part 3 What’s the Mediterranean for you? – Sabrine’s message for the Mediterranean

What is the Mediterranean for you?

“For me, the Mediterranean is more a feeling than a country. It’s a sense of belonging, the human warmth and the smile. These values make us easy to contact immediately. It is often said that we the Mediterranean have warm blood and these are values that I recognize in some people who are Mediterranean but sometimes not at all. When I feel this, I say it right away – besides you are a little bit Mediterranean on the edges! So the Mediterranean for me is when I feel at home. It can be a place, but also a feeling of friendship and well-being.”

Sabrine’s message for the Mediterranean

“The message I would like to pass to the Mediterranean, in this case especially to Tunisians, is that we must hold on to a country that has gone through several occupations, settlements etc., to a country that is about to forget its language, its traditions, the values to which it belongs. Hold on to our values, because these values define us.”

Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Sabrine’s insider travel tips for Tunisia

Places to go

People that want to visit Tunisia should, first of all, show some interest in Tunisian culture. You have to know that Tunisia is a crossroads of cultures, a country that has hosted several civilizations, the Ottomans last. We were colonized by the French, that’s why there is a good part of Tunisia that is francophone. Everything is related to those civilizations who settled in Tunisia and who left each, in turn, small clues and traces like Kobbet Lahwa or the Bey’s house here near La Marsa beach. We also have Roman ruins in Carthage and in Bizerte Phoenician ruins.

Discover an amazing architectural heritage

When we look at this aspect of Tunisian history, we realize how much the country is made of these patchworks: Berber, Roman, Phoenician and Andalusian culture as well, because the Spanish also passed by Tunisia. The architecture is made of that too. For example, when you go to the medina of Tunis – a must see – you can see this incredible architecture and the handmade faiences. It’s both Arabesque and Andalusian. Unfortunately, we have lost the artistic side in the modern constructions.

Go to the medinas of all Tunisian regions like Sousse, Sfax, Hammamet, and Djerba. Djerba is a paradise island. You can swim, take a walk in the medina, meet the Djerbians who are beautiful people, eat a “brik”. It’s always about eating in Tunisia, it’s part of our culture.

Live the Tunisian culinary experience

I recommend paying close attention to the Tunisian culinary experience. Go to the medina and eat a Lablebi, an ojja Merguez or a couscous with vegetables or fish. Go to Sidi Bou Said and have tea at the Café des Délices. Go to Monastir and Sfax to eat fresh fish prepared with traditional Tunisian recipes. You have to do these culinary experiments and experiment all these succulent dishes!

Discover beautiful beaches and the Sahara desert

Go to Dougga where you’ll find the largest Roman amphitheater. Go to Hammamet or Sousse to see the beautiful beaches. And speaking of beautiful beaches, I’m from Kelibia so I’m going to promote Kelibia, you have to go! Cape Good, this beach is something heavenly. You also have to see the beaches of Bizerte, there is Cape Zebib, Cape Serrat, Sidi Ali Mekki.

Go to the South of Tunisia – preferably in January or February when it’s colder. Go to Tozeur and Ksar Ghilane, a place near Douz with hot water sources. There are also activities such as trips on a quad. The star’s night in the south is a must see! It’s done every year towards the month of December.

Get to know our Berber heritage and traditions. Go see the Zaouia, watch a show such as Hadhra and listen to this amazing spiritual music!

Festivals

I like the international festival of Hammamet because it’s the festival that does the most research on current music. It’s also the one that gives the most chances to new Tunisian projects and to the current Arabic alternative music. There are artists such as, for example, Anouar Brahem, Hindi Zahra or Buika. They are inviting all kinds of interesting projects which are unfortunately not taken into consideration by the International Music Festival of Carthage.”

Discover new books, films, and music – Sabrine’s cultural recommendations

Books

“I just discovered the author Irvin Yalom who wrote “And Nietzsche cried”, a fictional story about the first psychoanalytical speech therapy in history, made by a doctor called “Dr. Breuer”. When he supports Nietzsche for migraines, he realizes that this migraine is invisible, more a malaise than a simple headache. It’s a very interesting book that touched me a lot because Nietzsche is a philosopher, a scientist, a very intelligent man after all. So psychoanalysis can bring even the most intelligent people to confront their most atrocious fears.”

I also like Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. It’s a philosophical essay that talks about the cycle of life. Sisyphus is a man who has been condemned by the Gods to support a stone to the top. As soon as he reaches the top, the cycle is renewed. He is condemned to do this for eternity. Camus speaks in his book of the possibility of not seeing it as a punishment but as a blessing. You learn to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

For lighter readings, I recommend “Why did I eat my dad” by Roy Lewis. It’s a scientist, who speaks of an analogy of the first men who discovered fire, but who then discover human relations and the mixture of cultures. It’s very interesting, very playful, very funny. The book made me laugh a lot!”

Music

“I love Radiohead, it’s a classic. I also recommend Agnes Obel, Other Lives, Cat Stevens, Rolling Stones, and The Beatles where you can find the secret of music. For oriental songs, I am very fond of “Alsarah & The Nubatones” and I really like the music of “Fatoumata Diawara”, “Gnawa Diffusion”, “Mashrou Leila” as well as Yasmine and Zeid Hamden.”

Films

“I recommend “Mister Nobody” and all the films of Almodovar. I also really like old Tunisian films such as “Asfour Stah” or “Summer in La Goulette”. They are very playful movies, but also speak of Tunisian traditions and an epoch of Tunisia that I like a lot. I further recommend “Samt Elkoussour”. I am a supporter of all Tunisian films and productions. As soon as a new Tunisian film comes out, I will go see it. I love everything that is done about Tunisian culture because I know how risky it is to embark on artistic projects in Tunisia.”

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