Music of beauty from a barren land

Relatively few people will have been familiar with the music, culture and history of the Sahrawi people of north-western Africa before Aziza Brahim arrived on the music scene. Brahim has not only won an award for her original soundtrack to the film "Wilaya", she has also released three albums. Her latest album, "Soutak", spent three months at the top of the World Music Charts Europe in 2014. A review by Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

At first glance, the Sahara Desert of North West Africa seems like one of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth. The film industry and other Western media usually show us images of trackless wastes, endless miles of sand dunes dotted with the occasional oasis and scrubby plants. However, this supposed barren land has been home to various nomadic peoples for centuries.

When the Arab and Ottoman armies started to move into Africa and establish their North African kingdoms, they found the tribesman already firmly established. While there were occasional alliances between the new kingdoms in Algeria and Morocco, the caliphs and emirs were wise enough not to attempt to impose their rule on the nomads.

Even the European colonial rulers had the initial good sense to leave well enough alone. It wasn't until the French and the Spanish, the controllers of North Africa, discovered the wealth of natural resources buried beneath the desert that they began to interfere.

While the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) of Mali and Niger have been receiving world attention recently because of the attempted takeover of Northern Mali by fundamentalist terror groups with their very narrow definition of Islam, they aren't the only nomadic people who have seen their land and culture stolen out from under them in the past 80 years.

One of the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria (photo: Mahrez Ben Chenouf)
Aziza Brahim was born in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, (one of these camps is pictured above) in 1976. According to Richard Marcus, her album "Soutak" is an "attempt to give voice to the plight of not only her own people, but also people in refugee camps all over the world"

The plight of the Sahrawi people

The area now known as Morocco was once home to the Sahrawi people. Like their Berber relatives to the south, they have been forced out of their traditional territories and into refugee camps and exile in Algeria through the new government's policies.

While the number of refugees living in the four camps in northern Algeria is unclear (estimates range from the 40,000 claimed by the Moroccans to the 150,000 claimed by the Sahrawi governing body), the fact remains that they are a people without a home whose plight has been ignored by most of the world.

Unlike the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg), who have been very successful in exporting their culture, and by extension their circumstances, to the rest of the world through music, Sahrawi representation on the world stage has been minimal. One woman who has been trying very hard to make herself heard has been Aziza Brahim. Although a child of the refugee camps, she now calls Barcelona home, and it is there she recorded her album "Soutak" (translated as "Your Voice") for Glitterbeat Records.

The title is very appropriate as the songs on the disc attempt to give voice to the plight of not only her own people, but also people in refugee camps all over the world. While she sings in Spanish, the booklet accompanying the disc comes with both English and Arabic translations of the lyrics, so both the people for whom the songs are meant and people in other parts of the world can understand their meaning.

Inclusive sound

In an introductory statement for the CD she says, "the album contains songs about worries – intimate and collective – that take on universal dimensions". To that end she made the decision to incorporate both the musical traditions of her own people and those of other cultures in order to create a more inclusive sound.

Right from the opening track, "Gidem Izik" (Camp of Dignity), you can hear the results of this amalgamation. The solo guitar accompanying her has what can only be called a distinctive Spanish feel and sound to it. There's nothing really overt you can put your finger on, but elements of Flamenco and other styles classically associated with Spanish music come through. Underpinning everything are percussion and electric bass. Anyone who has listened to any of the music of the Kel Tamashek of Northern Mali from the last decade or so will be familiar with the rhythm: the steady, trance-inducing beat that drives music forward in an effortless fashion.

While with the Kel Tamashek, the rhythm provides the undercurrent for the steady drone of their version of electric blues, Brahim has used it as the foundation upon which she builds her more complex vocal melodies. Although she has something of the same declarative style of singing – she is telling stories, after all – her vocals show the influence of other cultures and styles.

Whereas with most of the music from the nomadic tribes of the Sahara region I've heard in the past, the lyrics are almost chanted in time to the pulse of the beat, Brahim allows her voice to reflect the emotional content of her lyrics and uses the rhythm as the forge upon which she creates her own sound.

Reading through the English translations of her lyrics, it quickly becomes obvious that she has been true to her word about creating songs that not only speak of her own people, but also echo the plight of those in similar situations around the world. Track three, "Espejismos" (Mirages), is one of the most moving examples of this. In language that borders on the poetic, she describes the effects of war and strife upon the land in a way that not only brings it to life, but evokes the suffering of those who have to continue living there. "Damn the seeds of graves/that beat among the stones of your homeland/that grow/nourished by rage,/sacrificing the worth of the crop/and its fruit."

Giving a voice to the oppressed

Cover of Aziza Brahim's album "Soutak"
Aziza Brahim now lives in Barcelona, which probably explains the subtle Spanish feel to some of the tracks on her CD "Soutak" (see the video above).

However, her songs aren't just about desolation and horror, they are also about the potential for oppressed people to speak out and be heard. In the CD's sixth and title track, "Soutak" (Your Voice), Brahim says "I want to hear your voice/and the sweet words/that have lived within me/ever since those days." Within each person who has lived a life dominated by outside forces resides a voice that hopes for something better.

Having been born in a refugee camp and experienced what it's like to have her homeland stolen, she's in a position to say to others "your story is my story, and our voices are the same." She doesn't make any assumptions about other's experiences, but assures them that their voices are as important as anyone else's, including hers.

Aziza Brahim has created a CD of heartrending beauty that speaks to the plight of refugees everywhere without descending into the mire of politics. Instead of pointing fingers or blaming anybody, she has focused on the results of the world ignoring oppressed people everywhere.

While this is impressive in itself, "Soutak" is also an example of the simple and elegant way in which musical traditions can be combined and blended to create a sound that doesn't compromise or insult anyone's culture. There aren't many people who speak for the voiceless among us, but here is one record that does so with intelligence and integrity.

Richard Marcus

© 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/