Bouchnaq, Lotfi (1954–)

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Bouchnaq, Lotfi

Tunisian Lotfi Bouchnaq (also Lutfi Bushnaq, Boushnak, Bouchnak) is a composer, oud (ud) player and singer whose vast repertoire of Arabic music extends from secular Egyptian popular music or Algerian-inflected Raï music, to sacred music and derived compositions. He is famous, in particular, for introducing Tunisian ma'luf (Andalusian music) to the outside world via his modern renditions of the old art form. Considered one of the stars of Arabic music, he has performed on all continents and made several records with diverse ensembles and partners in a variety of musical genres. In 2004 he became peace ambassador for the United Nations. A versatile artist, he has composed the soundtrack for several films, become an actor in Tunisian films, performed his own poetry and exhibited his photography in Le Damier, a gallery in Tunis, titled "Chants de Vision" (Songs of vision).


Bouchnaq was born in Tunis, Tunisia, in 1954. His family name in Arabic means "Bosnian," suggesting that his family may have arrived in Tunisia from Europe as slave-soldiers from Bosnia during the period of Ottoman Turkish rule. He has no formal musical education, and cannot read music. Bouchnaq learned to sing ma'luf in youth choruses that rehearsed at the National Conservatory and the Maison de Culture Ibn Khaldun in Tunis, Tunisia's capital, as well as from listening to recordings of the Rashidiyya musical ensemble that were played on the radio.


Bouchnaq went on to become a singer with a presence on not only the Tunisian and Arab stages, but also the world stage. He credits his first influence to be Egyptian singing star umm kulthum, to whom he would listen growing up, and to all the twentieth-century songs and music Egypt generously shared with its Arab neighbors. Bouchnaq first became famous for his performance of Egyptian standards both in Tunis and in Cairo. As an example, his singing an old song such as "al-Ward Jamil" (Flowers are beautiful)—composed for the 1946 Egyptian musical Fatima, starring Umm Kulthum herself—always provoked great enthusiasm in his audiences whether at home or abroad in the 1980s.

But Bouchnaq was also deeply influenced by the revival of "Tunisian ma'luf" that was taking place in Tunis while he was growing up, thanks to two phenomena: the frequent performances of the ma'luf by the Rashidiyya ensemble in Tunis (especially on the Tunisian radio through the 1940s), and the institutionalization of ma'luf by the government at Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. In 1934 the Rashidiyya was created by a group of intellectuals and musicians as a music school to revive the Andalusian ma'luf, seen as a historical Tunisian musical form, in order to oppose the growing impact of Egyptian music generously exported to Tunisia at the time. The Rashidiyya comprised an ensemble of musicians charged with performing the ma'luf, seen by its director, Mohamed Triki, as the basis of all Tunisian music. The group also created an institute along the model of a European music conservatory where traditional or "classical" Tunisian music would be taught, and transcribed all ma'luf music known to the various shaykhs of Tunis in Western musical notations. Ma'luf (literally "customary") is said to have originated in Andalusia, and traveled to the shores of Northern Africa when the Moors were expelled from Spain in the late fifteenth century. However, this form of music survived only in Tunisia. Hence, it is therefore prized as a central piece of Andalusian cultural heritage not only by Tunisians but also by other Maghrebis (North Africans). It derives from the nuba in its structure (alternating various modes and moving from one musical song to the next via an instrumental passage).

In the past the ma'luf had been an elitist form of poetry composed in literary Arabic and put to music to entertain palace dwellers; it included verses composed in Tunisian dialect and was performed in Sufi zawiyas (lodges) and cafés. It slowly became synonymous with Tunisian homegrown music, a fact not lost on the first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, eager to (re)construct and project a national identity. To that end, he created various cultural institutions. In 1958, for instance, a presidential decree delineated a curriculum for the Conservatory of Music in Tunis that demands the study of Egyptian turath (classical or canonical music) and Tunisian ma'luf.

In 1961 Bourguiba created a Ministry of Culture (Ministère de la Culture et de la Défense du Patrimoine) to propagate Tunisia's cultural heritage. To that end, it founded the maisons de la culture/dur al-thaqafa, or cultural centers in all major urban areas, endowed with a varied culture agenda (to put on plays, house a film club, organize exhibits, have lectures, etc.). In 1961 the ministry declared ma'luf national heritage, to be taught in the various dur al-thaqafa scattered throughout the country. That same year, the Rashidiyya transcriptions were edited in a nine-volume series titled al-Rutath al-Musiqi al-Tunisi (Tunisian musical heritage) and sent to all cultural centers. The ma'luf was definitely anchored in music training. This is how the ma'luf became a national institution, with an academic status. Simultaneously, however, it also remained a popular practice and form of entertainment performed by Sufi (Islamic mystic) brotherhoods locally, with their own variations. As such, it started to spread in various forms and acquired a following that delighted in its popular renditions as the latter were quite distinct from the more purist forms dictated by Rashidiyya and its performances. It is this ma'luf vernacular that one could hear in cafés or after a Sufi ritual outside the zawyia (Sufi lodges). A music that originated in the Sufi practices, this ma'luf survived despite governmental policies meant to shut down the zawiyas that kept on being performed through the 1980s and influenced Bouchnaq's own ma'luf.


Name: Lotfi Bouchnaq (also Lutfi Bushnaq, Boushnak, Bouchnak)

Birth: 1954, Tunis, Tunisia

Nationality: Tunisian

Family: Married


  • 1991: Released first album, Salam Allkoum (Peace be upon you)
  • 1993: Released breakthrough album Ma'luf Tunisi/Malouf tunisien (Tunisian ma'luf)
  • 2004: Named an ambassador for peace by the United Nations
  • 2006: Awarded the November 7th Prize for Creativity by Tunisian President Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali


Bouchnaq has worked with several other Tunisian musicians and singers, including singer Sonia M'barek, with whom he has performed at the Carthage festival; composer and ud player Anouar Brahem who composed songs for him; Ali Sriti who was his ud and voice master; and his brother, Hamid Bouchnaq, with whom he has performed.

The fact that Bouchnaq recorded his seminal CD, Ma'luf Tunisi/Malouf tunisien (Paris: Maison des Cultures du Monde) in 1993 speaks volumes about his mastery of the singing of the ma'luf. He skillfully transcended the difference between popular and classical to take the ma'luf to its global dimension, as he blurred the lines encircling the official old-fashioned ma'luf and gave the traditional form new, contemporary inflections. He has, since then, exported the ma'luf everywhere: His recitals take him to Cairo, Paris (Institut du Monde Arabe), Berlin, London, Seoul, Montreal, and Tokyo. He has done so much to spread Tunisian ma'luf through his various recordings and concerts that President zein al-abidin ben ali bestowed upon him the November 7th Prize for Creativity in 2006, thus burying the old war hatchet between the purists of the 1930s and today's popular musicians.

Bouchnaq can claim mastery in another Andalusian song form, the muwashsha, which he studied in the 1970s under the late ud master Ali Sriti, who was both a consummate lute-player, agile with the Arab scales/moods or maqamat and a chant and muwashsha instructor. The muwashsha is a form of composition and poetry attributed to Muqaddam Ibn Mu'afa (end of the tenth century). Its etymology (the name derives from the washa, an ornate sash worn diagonally from shoulder to waist) hints at the brevity of its strophic form: Each stanza is composed of three lines, with a rhyme introduced at the beginning of the stanza. However, each stanza is its own world, has its own complete meaning and rhymes, separated from the next by a recurring chorus. Choosing this form of composition and poetry written entirely in classical Arabic indicates a definite return to the Andalusian roots of music and poetry: "It is said that the interwoven rhymes of the muwashsha represent the exact auditory-rhythmic counterpart of the interlacing arches in the Great Mosque of Cordova" (Salloum), 2005. Whether the glorious past of al Andalus is deeply engrained in the musical form itself or not, the choice to compose and perform muwashshas is not innocent. It points to the desire of the Tunisian musician to add to his repertoire something else besides the Egyptian popular musical forms that had flooded the Mediterranean world in the twentieth century, and that included such Egyptian classics as "al-Ward Jamil" (flowers are beautiful) written for the 1946 musical Fatima.

Very soon, under Sriti's tutelage, Bouchnaq became known for his talented vocal solos and attracted the attention of such composers as Anouar Brahem who started to compose songs for him. Bouchnaq has, undoubtedly from his Qur'anic schooling, a superior mastery of not only classical Arabic, but also diction and recitation accentuation. Every word is clearly articulated, and projected with power and nuances to audiences that fill up theaters and amphitheaters in North Africa and elsewhere.


Bouchnaq's public is drawn to him not only for the range and timbre of his tenor voice or his delicate musicianship, but also, and perhaps even more so, because of his eloquence, the clarity of his elocution, and the quality of his poetry. These superlative qualities have earned him his stature as one of the most famous and beloved singers in the Arab world, in league with late Egyptian star Umm Kulthum in terms of notoriety, musicianship and charisma.

For it is his charisma that all audiences report after a concert by Bouchnaq, a phenomenon he explains to Westerners as "sharing his soul with his audience until the end, to the dregs," ending up in a trancelike state shared by his listeners. This particular height of magical charisma clearly illustrates the old Arabic concept of tarab, a brand of "enchantment" (in the truest sense of the term: to be in another state, to leave one's conscious state to be "in" the world of the song, of music), amply described by al-Isbahani, for instance, as early as the tenth century, in The Book of Songs (al-Kitab al-Aghani) as the apex of musical pleasure that every musician wants to reach for his listeners. Umm Kulthum, and more recently, fayruz or Sabah Fahri, for instance, are known for transporting their audiences into tarab.

The United Nations nominated Bouchnaq as an ambassador for peace in 2004, a role he takes seriously both on and off stage, giving concerts for various causes (one for the victims of Israeli bombardments in summer 2006, for instance). As an artist, he has also chosen to collaborate with a variety of interesting groups from outside Tunisia in order to reach a global audience (his repeated performances in the 1990s with the al-Kindi group, for instance, allowed him to reach a Western audience). A pious Muslim, he has appeared several times at the Fez (Morocco) Sacred Music festival, and recorded sufi songs with Abidah Parvin, as well as performed the ninety-nine names of Allah. His contributions to the world of sacred music are perhaps more significant than his performances of the Egyptian standards which earned him his fame at the beginning of his career. In 2006 Tunisian president Ben Ali awarded Bouchnaq the November 7th Prize for Creativity.


Bouchnaq is still performing, but will be remembered as modern Tunisia's most adroit and famous singer.


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――――――. "Cultural Policy and the Tunisian Ma'luf: Redefining a Tradition." Ethnomusicology 41, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 1-21.

――――――. "Traditional Arab Music Ensembles in Tunis: Modernizing Al Turath in the Shadow of Egypt." Asian Music 28, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1997): 73-108.

Matsuda, Yoshiko. "Lotfi Bouchnak: A Chosen Being." Available from

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Salloum, Habeeb. "The Arab Muwashsha and Zajal Poetry and Their Influence on Europoean Music and Song." El Hawar Magazine 2005. Available from


Salam Allkoum. Paris: Sony BGM Entertainment France, 1991.

Loutfi Bouchnak. Sony BMG Music Entertainment France, Columbia label, 1992.

Recorded by Françoise Gründ. Fenêtre sur le monde/Window on the world. Paris: Maison des cultures du monde, 1992.

Al Kindi ensemble. Chants classiques de Tunisie et du Moyen-Orient. Next Music, 1993.

With Fathi Zighundah; al-Bashir Salimi et al. Ma'luf Tunisi / Malouf tunisien. Paris: Maison des Cultures du Monde, 1993.

Halawt al-donia / Outstanding Tunisian singer Lotfi Bouchnak sings Egyptian classical songs. Jidda, Saudi Arabia: SIDI, 1994.

With Hamid Bouchnak. Paris: EMI Music France, Totem Records label, 1998.

With Muzaffar Ali; Amir Khusraw Dihlavi; Abidah Parvin et al. Jahan-e-Khusrau realm of the heart: excerpts from the live recording of Jahan-e-Khusrau festival held at Delhi on Friday, 23rd and Saturday 24th March, 2001. Mumbai: Times Music, 2001.

Live in Berlin. Harmonia Mundi / Weltmusik, 2003.

With Hamid Bouchnak. Ana Ghadi. Rue Stendhal Diffusion. Creon Music, 2005.

                                        Florence Martin

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Bouchnaq, Lotfi (1954–)

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