Western Sahara’s Unsung Fight

Source: New Internationalist

Clyde Macfarlane catches up with Aziza Brahim as she releases her third album, Abbar el Hamada.

Photo: Western Saharan singer and refugee Aziza Brahim by Guillem Moreno

Anyone who has traced a finger down the coast of Morocco to stumble across the ambiguous, grey-shaded territory of Western Sahara will be surprised to discover that this is far from a barren no-man’s-land; small desert towns dot the main highway all the way down to Mauritania. Hardly restricted to these pockets of civilization, the Saharawi people have lived a nomadic life across the region for hundreds of years. A 1976 invasion by Morocco and Mauritania made the majority of Saharawis refugees, an identity which the singer, tabal drummer and activist Aziza Brahim sees as integral to her music.

In 2014, Brahim’s Soutak was selected in Songlines Magazine’s top 10 albums of the year, a feat acknowledged by an appearance on BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland. I saw her play at The Barbican’s Sahara Soul, an event whose packed audience reflected how Saharan musicians, particularly Malians, are filtering into the mainstream; desert rockers Tinariwen recently collaborated with Red Hot Chili Peppers, while the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré has escaped the oft criticised ‘world music’ title to be considered a legendary blues guitarist in his own right.

But unlike Sahara Soul’s proudly Malian performers, Brahim’s status as a refugee creates a blurred notion of homeland. She was born in an Algerian refugee camp in a region known to the Saharawi as Hamada, and an adolescence spent in Cuba and Barcelona meant she learned about Western Sahara through word of mouth.

‘I feel like I’m missing my place in the world,’ she told me in reference to her new album Abbar el Hamada, which translates as ‘across the Hamada’. ‘I was fortunate to grow up in a family that always talked about Western Sahara, which gave me a great sense of its beauty and how much it has to offer.’

Like Soutak, Abbar el Hamada comes in a rich flood of Arabic, Spanish and West African influences. At times the music is as beautifully sparse as the landscape it represents, with the tabal – a large hand drum – providing the only instrumental backing. More frequently though, Abbar el Hamada takes on a subtle lushness that brings together Spanish guitar licks with Malian-style desert blues.

‘Almost all my family are musicians,’ she says of her upbringing, ‘and the tabal drum is the percussive base of all Saharawi music. It’s an instrument that’s exclusively played by women, and it always forms the backbone to my music. In my family everything is traditional, but because of my life experience and exposure I’ve introduced a lot of fusion.’

CM: What was the reaction to this back home?

‘Initially my family found this strange, but at the same time my grandmother, who’s been my biggest influence artistically, was very proud that I was in a position to explore other genres. My grandmother is a poetess. Although she’s illiterate, she’s very wise. She took on the role of documenting the Moroccan takeover.’

The Moroccan and Mauritanian invasions of Western Sahara were catastrophic for the Saharawi, most of whom saw Hamada as the only pocket of safety in the region.

It’s hard for the Saharawi to be so far away from the sea, which essentially represents freedom

Between 1981 and 1987 Morocco erected a sand wall around Western Sahara to protect its new territory, and the landmines along its 2,700 kilometre length still prevent many refugees from returning home.

‘The political situation we’re in now is a stalemate,’ explains Brahim. ‘We’ve been waiting 40 years to have a referendum, which is the fairest way to resolve our conflict. It’s something that’s been re-affirmed by the United Nations, and it was clearly ruled by the International Court of Justice in 1975. The Saharawi have every right to override any claims regionally, particularly by Morocco, and to have self determination.’

CM: What parts of Saharawi life are incompatible with life in the refugee camps?

‘It’s hard for the Saharawi to be so far away from the sea, which essentially represents freedom. Our coast is one of the richest fishing waters in the world. We miss the smell of the sea, and the chance to enjoy our own resources. We feel very much deprived of what is essentially ours. Even though I don’t physically know the land, I understand what’s being transmitting through my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The extremity of the Hamada climate makes us entirely dependent on international help. There’s a lot of hardship, and that’s on top of the politics. At present our focus is trying to live with dignity.’

CM: What is the relationship between Western Sahara and Cuba?

‘There’s an agreement of support and solidarity that’s long existed since our plight began. This has been demonstrated by a regular wave of Cuban doctors to our refugee camps. On an educational level, the Cuban government has sponsored a lot of Saharawi children. I happened to be one of those children, so I got the chance to go to Cuba and gain a higher education. There I met people from all over the world. I learned to play music in Africa, but the Cuban influences in my sound are clear.’

CM: If Western Sahara got independence, would you go back?

‘Even though I live in Spain, I feel like a refugee. The only time that will change is when I have a chance to be in my own land; at the moment I have no sense of belonging. For me, Abbar el Hamada is an album title that synthesizes our destiny as a country over the last 40 years. We are suffering an injustice that condemns us to try and survive in an inhospitable environment.’

In addition to Brahim’s stalwart Barcelonan guitarists Guillem Aguilar and Ignasi Cussó, Abbar el Hamada features several musicians from Senegal and Mali. For the first time, her percussion has traversed beyond the tabal and into the trademark polyrhythms of West African drumming.

‘I’ve always been interested in these sounds,’ says Brahim. ‘Mali is intriguing because of Ali Farka Touré and Salif Keita, while Senegal has Ismaël Lô and the fantastic mbalax music of Youssou N’Dour. On this new album, I wanted to explore these influences because they are from my musical neighbourhood and are in the musical landscape of my memory.’

CM: You’ve previously shared stages with various Tuareg groups such as Tinariwen, Terakaft and Tamikrest. Do you identify with their plight in the current Malian conflict?

‘We should be able to identify with the struggles of others, and this is certainly the case with the Tuareg. They have also been displaced. They have experienced oppression and are now fighting for their rights and freedom, and I can identify with what they represent both musically and socially. We both vow to struggle peacefully, so music is one of the only ways to get a platform.’

CM: Your track ‘Los Muros’ [the walls] seems to have an important meaning. What are your feelings towards the sand wall erected by the Moroccan government?

‘First of all, I feel impotence because this wall is 60 times larger than the Berlin wall was and yet it never appears in the newspapers. There are a lot of people that don’t know it exists. This wall hurts the essential rights of the Saharawi people, which is their right to return home. I feel shame as a human being, because nowadays the wall is growing and is supported by many western countries. The wall divides Western Sahara, and stands as the physical symbol of an illegal occupation.’

CM: Has your political message changed since recording Soutak?

‘The political message is the same, more or less. I’m still calling for my people’s freedom, but I’m also trying to express a message through which as many people as possible can identify because at present there are so many troubles in the world.’

CM: How do you identify with the refugee crisis in Europe?

‘The Saharawi people are one of the older refugee people at this moment, but I didn’t personally experience the exodus to the camps as I was born a refugee. According to my family’s experience, I know that previously many people died in the desert. Today, refugees die in the sea. Nobody flees from their countries without a reason, and normally it has a dangerous cause: war, hunger, oppression.’

CM: What hope do you have for the future of the Saharawi?

‘For the future, I hope for Saharawi self-determination. I would like to think that the Moroccan state can accomplish this legally by announcing the fair referendum that the UN resolutions are calling for. If they give us the vote, we’ll be able to walk with freedom through the streets of Dakhla.’

Abbar el Hamada will be released by Glitterbeat Records on 4 March, 2016.