Mounira Mitchala is known as the ‘gentle panther’ in her homeland, Chad. She has also become something of a national treasure, one of the few female vocalists that have emerged from that country.
But it has been no easy journey for Mounira to carve out a career on the international music scene. While her peers living in Paris, London or New York might expect a life of pampered luxury, that is not Mounira’s lifestyle. She still works a nine-to-five job in Chad as a civil servant in the judiciary.
Born in N’Djamena in 1979, her early years were spent outside her homeland in both Germany and Nigeria. Her father, Dr Khalil Alio, an academic specialising in linguistics, led a life of exile fleeing from the brutal Chadian dictator Hissène Habré’s oppressive regime until the early 1990s.
Mounira was exposed to the many musical influences that have made her the singing sensation she is today. Not only was Dr Khalil continually playing the US jazz and blues that he loved so much in the family’s home, but he also introduced his eldest daughter to the varied music of many of the 200 different ethnic groups of Chad.
But Mounira faced a number of obstacles, not least that, in the highly conservative Islamic society that is Chad, stage singers are seen as virtually worthless individuals.
Mounira had also to overcome extreme shyness. To do so she started to take drama lessons and slowly found her voice, gradually becoming more confident. In 2000 she wrote her first song and began performing with local groups.
She was also to meet a number of international artists that visited to perform in N’Djamena, artists like Ismaël Lô, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Alpha Blondy, Oumou Sangaré, and this inspired her further to follow a singing career.
Her big international break came when she won the French broadcaster RFI’s 2007 Découvertes award from a jury chaired by the Malian singing star Salif Keita.
From this followed an invitation to appear at the Musiques Métisses festival in Angoulême, France and performance dates in Paris. Thanks to her mentor, Christian Mousset, (who continues to be Mounira’s manager) she recorded her first CD, Talou Lena.
Mounira decided to continue singing in Chadian Arabic. “You hear Saï rhythms from the south of the country,” she explains, “as well as Bilala rhythms from my native region in central Chad.”
Commenting upon what motivates her to perform and the nature of the songs that she composes, she says: “Peace and unity are not just vain and empty words for me. It’s only when we get peace in my homeland that we’ll be able to start building for the future.”
On Chili Houritki, she channels traditional sounds from the four corners of her homeland with her own unique ‘trad-modern’ style. There are a dozen songs that deal with justice, her outrage at violence, Africa’s development, women’s rights, and a mother’s unlimited love.
It is a beguiling, fascinating mix but she is modest enough to comment that she is not unique: “It’s true that very few artists from my homeland are known abroad, but there’s just so much musical talent around in Chad!
“Even women are beginning to play more and more of an active role!” she says, aware that she has become a role model for her female compatriots.
As she comments: “In the past I had to work really hard to get things going. Now, I just have to prepare myself so that the rest falls into place!”