Aziza Brahim in Barcelona, where she lives with her husband and child. Dave Stelfox /February 2014
Aziza Brahim in Barcelona, where she lives with her husband and child. Dave Stelfox /February 2014

Aziza Brahim, singer and refugee, is bringing the songs of Western Sahara to the world

“My strongest influence will always be the haul: the traditional sound of the Western Sahara,” says Aziza Brahim. But while the singer is keen to draw attention to the themes of personal and collective identity that run throughout her work, she is equally happy to recognise an even deeper connection between all her inspirations.

“I listen to lots of different styles of music from lots of different places: Africa, Europe, the United States and the Arab world, because I’m interested in roots.” This simple statement makes a lot of sense, especially when one pauses to consider Brahim’s own story. She was born in 1976 in a refugee camp in Algeria that her mother fled to during the early days of the continuing Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara. She never met her father, who died during the Western Sahara war, and it was in those camps that she first displayed a talent for music.

In 1995, Brahim won a song contest that drew artists from all over the partially recognised state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, then joined the National Sahrawi Music Group. Since then, she has struck out on her own and recorded four increasingly acclaimed solo albums. The most recent, Soutak – out now on the German Glitterbeat label – shows her voice at its powerful, emotive best and is bringing her work to a growing audience.

“I’ve always focused my lyrics on the history and struggle of my people,” Brahim says. “Music is very important in the Sahrawi culture. A vital part of our cultural legacy is oral, not written. Music is a base for much of our poetry and many of our stories. It can be used as a means of resistance, but also a way of coming together. At every party – weddings, celebrations and religious events – it is always present. It’s something that we need.” While the respective plights of certain other stateless communities are widely reported in the global media, the Sahrawi are rarely discussed. As a public figure from the Western Sahara, this frequently forces Brahim to act as a de facto ambassador for her people. While this is undoubtedly a considerable responsibility for any artist, she appears content with the role and comfortable with the obligations this places on her music.

“It’s an old conversation,” Brahim says. “Making art in the service of a cause … For myself, I am just glad to be in a position where I can make people aware of the situation of the Sahrawi people. My songs talk about those issues because I can’t do anything else. When I express the concerns of my people through my music, I am also expressing my own concerns.

“Personal experience is very important in my work, but I am also part of a wider society. I belong to an occupied country – my people have been exiled and in refugee camps for nearly 40 years, my homeland is filled with landmines and families have been separated. The international community may be able to sit back and watch this happen but I can’t do the same. I want to talk about these things, but it is important to me to not only write and sing about these issues. I also try to include other parts of life that anyone in the world can identify with and relate to.”

Brahim is now based in Barcelona, where she lives with her husband and two young children. Up until 1975, the Western Sahara was under the colonial control of Spain. Many linguistic ties still exist between the territories, but Brahim’s spoken Spanish appears most informed by the childhood years she spent as a scholarship student in Cuba. This experience was relatively common among Sahrawis of her age, but she believes that her time in the republic may have left her with more than an accent.

“While I was there, I wasn’t making music,” she says, “but I was exposed to the heritage of the country. I got to know the work of a lot of people. It was all very new for me then, but now I think some element of my time there will always be present in my songs.”

Where Brahim’s third outing, Mabruk, explored a harder-edged rock-influenced sound, Soutak offers folk music distilled to its purest essence. Slightly smoother than the traditional Sahrawi songs of artists such as Mariem Hassan, the album’s pared-down rhythms and acoustic instrumentation place emphasis on Brahim’s richly textured vocals. “I felt that I needed to make a simpler sound,” Brahim says. “I wanted to focus on the new songs and their lyrics, and to use the tabal – the traditional Sahrawi percussion instrument – prominently.”

If it can be compared to anything, Brahim’s recent work most strongly echoes the raw passion of blues and flamenco. In fact, it is no surprise to learn that many such artists have figured heavily on her personal playlist. “My country is very connected to Spanish history and culture; that’s why I use Spanish in some of my songs [in addition to Hassaniya Arabic]. I listen to lots of traditional Spanish music. From Africa, I love artists like Ali Farka Touré, Momo Wandel Soumah, Salif Keita and Miriam Makeba. I can also feel a strong connection between my own work and that of Dimi Mint Abba – she’s an emblematic female singer in haul culture. But lately I’ve spent a lot of time listening to American music, too: Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix …”

Of course, the idea of desert blues is not new. Malian Tuareg bands such as Tinariwen, whose sixth album Emaar was released last month, and Tamikrest, with whom Brahim shares a record label, have done much to popularise the form in recent years. While Brahim’s approach is somewhat different, relying on the poignancy of the human voice rather than sandstorms of electric guitars, she does recognise a good deal of common ground.

“I celebrate the success of these artists,” she says. “They are musicians who I listen to and like a great deal. They deserve what they have achieved and they have a fascinating musical culture. The growing acceptance of African music around the world is a very positive thing for all of us. Of course, I feel a relationship with other African artists because we are all from the same continent, but in many ways we are all very different. In the case of those bands, though, the Tuareg culture is very similar to the Sahrawi culture. In my country a lot of people like their music, and there is definitely a connection there for me too.”

When I met Brahim in Barcelona with her family, just before Soutak entered the European World Music Chart at No 1, she was clearly happy and fulfilled, both professionally and personally. With a number of international appearances planned for the coming months and the tally of glowing reviews still growing, she has reached a high point in her career. But that good fortune is tempered by the harsher realities that inform so much of her work.

“The camps where I was born are where many of the people who are most important to me still have to live,” she says. “I still keep in contact with ­everyone and visit them whenever I can. It’s a paradox, though. I have this freedom of expression in so many places, yet it is denied to me in my own country. I know that the Sahrawi people enjoy my music, but they have to enjoy it in a clandestine way. I feel very lucky that I get to perform all over the world and to spread the messages that are in my music. I just hope that we, the Sahrawi people, can enjoy our own culture in freedom at some point in the future.”

Dave Stelfox is a photographer and journalist based in London.

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