Night in Tunisia began turning heads immediately after Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpeter, composed it in 1942. An instant standard, it has been covered countless times in almost as many styles, ranging from Victor Wooten’s tap- and slap-bass to Ella Fitzgerald’s sultry storytelling to Bobby McFerrin’s impossibly virtuosic vocal interpretation. Well, add classical fingerstyle to the list, because here is the legendary Roland Dyens performing his strikingly original and extraordinarily difficult arrangement for acoustic guitar.
The song is especially appropriate for Dyens, a French-speaking native of Tunisia. The North-African nation, which incorporated fairly sizable populations of French and Italian colonists after declaring bankruptcy in 1869, was compelled to accept French protectorate status in 1881 and didn’t earn back its independence until 1956, a year after Dyens’ birth.
Unfortunately, residents of his birth-country are unable to enjoy this videotaped performance as we are – their government blocks YouTube. Thankfully, Dyens was raised and pursued his musical education in Europe; who knows if he would have been able to achieve what he has if he’d stayed in Tunisia. (Though residents of some the world’s most repressive states – North Korea, for example – have been known to compensate for the inaccessibility of popular culture by making music of their own.)
Watch what Dyens does with his E string in the last few seconds – he expands the bottom range of his instrument by quickly tuning the string down a half step, and slides it back up (called a glissando, and usually done on a fretted instrument only by bending the string) to resolve the piece. The lesson here, I think, is that the best musicians see their instruments as just that: instruments, or tools, for making music, which can and should be stretched to their fullest capacities.
Henri Matisse, the great French painter – who was also very interested in music – said that “much of the beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium.” It’s been more than 40 years since Roland Dyens began his struggle with six strings tied to a fretted, hollow hunk of wood, and he appears to be winning.