Saudi-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Tamtam releases her new single “Rise” with a thought-provoking video written and directed by award-winning Saudi filmmaker Meshal Al jaser, addressing the subject of arranged marriage. Watch here
Tamtam began exploring her voice at age 11, performing for the first time two years later when she was living outside the Middle East, winning her school’s annual talent competition with a performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. At the age of 15 Kuwaiti producer Zahed Sultan produced her first single “Little Girl”. Despite reservations of her Saudi friends and family, who warned Tamtam against showing her face online, she agreed to blur her face in the accompanying video directed by Sultan, which premiered on YouTube in December 2012. The experience inspired the artist to adopt the moniker, ‘Tamtam’—a nickname referencing an African drum.
The video to “Rise” was written and directed by Saudi-born, LA-based writer, actor and director Meshal Al jaser, who was given the lyrics to Tamtam’s song—“Started at eleven I would look up at the heavens and cry/Told me not to think ahead/I was lying in my bed, wondering why/I would never listen, no I had a vision it’s true/And I knew/There’s nothing that I can’t do”—and translated this moody meditation about rising above the haters attempting to thwart her musical aspirations into an exploration of arranged marriages shot in the desert north of Los Angeles. Al jaser arrived at the concept as a response to his personal understanding of this centuries-old Saudi tradition. “There’s basically a female from Saudi struggling in this song,” says Al jaser, “So I wanted to connect that with something you don’t typically see in music videos.”
The merger of these two parallel visions is a noirish fever dream that begins with Tamtam in a demure floral dress being blessed by a motherly figure carrying a smoking mabkhara of incense at a “lawful sight” (the only place a man is allowed to see a woman when she’s not covered in a burqa). “It was extremely hard for me not to laugh because I had to keep a straight face next to a mannequin!” says Tamtam, who played the role of the dutiful wife-to-be. Coming when summoned, serving orange juice, Tamtam’s character begrudgingly accepts a dowry and ring from her anonymous mannequin husband whom she weds in a surrealist, tropical nuptial celebration. “When I go home I see mannequins in the stores wearing traditional Saudi clothes but it’s not like a Saudi-looking mannequin, it’s a Western version, and it just looks hilarious,” says Al jaser. “Marrying a person without meeting them is like marrying a mannequin.”
Bordering on performance art, this sinister satire also features a series of quotidian offerings in Saudi homes—candles, dates, coffee, Turkish delight—and displays them on rotating plinths, turning these symbols of “a traditional, reparative life” into sculptural art objects. While these offerings might at first read as exotic to a western audience, Al jaser thinks of them as “a good representation of what that society wants, that’s the circle and rules of your life,” he says. “If this was an English music video you might see fish and chips.”
The video concludes in dramatic fashion with the mannequin husband set on fire. Tamtam, who wanted to work with Al jaser in part because he was a Saudi director who would understand the struggle of being a progressive Muslim woman in 2018, argues, “I know people might see it as aggressive, but it’s a metaphor.” And in reality, this conflagration would pale in comparison to the submissive existence these women find themselves in at a very young age—often for the remainder of their natural lives. “It’s not like this is happening to one or two women, this happens all the time to many women,” says Al jaser. Adds Tamtam, “I want to start a conversation and, sometimes, if you don’t shock people they just won’t pay attention.”
One final revelation, in the final sequence of the video is when Tamtam’s character re-emerges after the fire, carrying the same tray of orange juice. “She never really burned anyone,” she says with a laugh. “It was all just a fantasy, a vision of what her future life might have looked like had she gone through with this arranged marriage.” Whether this revelation is a dream or nightmare is, of course, a matter of perspective.