The voice of Western Sahara

Sahrawi singer and musician Aziza Brahim
Radio – a window on the wider world: the album's title "Mawja" literally means 'wave', as in broadcast wave bands. While her grandparents' radio brought the music of the world to her home in the refugee camp, Brahim is now using these same waves to tell her story to the world (image: Guillem Moreno)

Aziza Brahim's childhood as a Sahrawi refugee in Algeria naturally shaped her music, but as her latest album, "Mawja" shows, while she has not forgotten where she comes from, she has long since tuned her ears to a world beyond the camp perimeters

By Richard Marcus

The Sahrawi are victims of the postcolonial period in North Africa. 

The Western Sahara conflict began back in 1976 after the withdrawal of Spanish colonial power and the ensuing annexation of the area by Morocco and Mauritania, without consulting those who actually lived there – the Sahrawi – who would have preferred their own independent state. Subsequent hostilities between Morocco and the Sahrawi Polisario Front liberation movement forced hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to Algeria, where they still live in refugee camps.

Like other stateless people, Aziza Brahim was forced to turn to foreign shores for her education and work. She travelled to Cuba to study and now lives in Barcelona, Spain. No matter where she is, however, she is never completely divorced from her people and the land she was born into. 

Her first window on the wider world was her grandparent's radio – hence the album's title "Wave", as in broadcast wave bands. While the radio brought the music of the world to her home in the refugee camp, these same waves have now become her means of telling her story to the world. 

Collage of sounds

Brahim's music is a collage of sounds reflecting both her personal history and the music she listened to over the air waves as a child. It is not surprising, therefore, to hear elements of Afro/Cuban mixed with Spanish guitar and dessert blues. 

That said, it is a bit of a revelation to hear her cite British punk band The Clash as one of her influences, and her admission that she had her drummer listen to her favourite song by the band in preparation for recording the track "Metal, Madera" (Metal, Wood).

Cover of Aziza Brahim's "Mawja"
"Brahim’s voice, as always, is a wellspring of deep and resonant emotions. The yearning for homeland. The struggle for freedom. The love for one’s elders. The unfurling of time. Waves of history, waves of sound. Mawja" (source: Glitterbeat)

What is equally amazing is how well this disparate collection of musical influences coalesce into a harmonious sound. Of course it helps that Brahim is joined by a collection of musicians up to the task. While she sings and plays Spanish guitar and percussion with grace and beauty, her accompanists are equally talented. 

Guillem Aguilar supplies bass, acoustic and electric guitar, and mandola, Ignasi Cusso also plays both types of guitar, while Alexian Tobias and Andreu Moreno share drumming duties – the latter being the Clash-listening drummer playing on "Metal, Wood".

The music the ensemble creates is the perfect setting for Brahim's evocative and heartfelt lyrics. The album's songs are a rich mix of songs about the past, present and future of both her and her people. On the surface, the lyrics may seem deceptively simple, but when sung by her to the beautiful music created by the band, they resonate with deeper meaning.

For example, the song "Bein trab u lihjar" (Among stones and sand), contains the following lyric: "I remember my childhood/playing among adobe and stones/among sand and stones". Not much on the surface, but within the context of her history and listening to her voice and the music, we cannot help but visualise a small child surrounded by a harsh landscape. From there we are drawn into wondering about the realities of life in a refugee camp and what it must have been like growing up under those circumstances.

With the song "Bubisher" we see and hear Brahim's global musical education mesh lovingly with her Sahrawi heritage. The Bubisher is a legendary bird considered lucky because it always brings good news. "We are grateful to God/the Bubisher is here/it came to sing/and bring us/good news./Bubisher of the legend/of the image and of the thought".

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Liberation lyrics

While the lyrical content harkens back to the traditions of her people, musically the song sways and moves to the sounds of Spanish guitars and the sounds of Afro-Cuban percussion. Brahim is the bridge between the two worlds. Carrying the message and story of her people to us in a musical language we can recognise. Simply hearing her voice and feeling the power of the music we can feel the joy and power of this mystical bird, even if we don't understand the lyrics she is singing.

Unfortunately for the Sahrawi, there aren't many magical birds these days who will bring about relief from their situation as a stateless people. Their land will not be returned to them without some kind of fight. On "Haiyu ya zawar" (Cheer, Oh, revolutionaries) Brahim calls for her people to continue their struggle for independence. 

"Cheer, Oh, revolutionaries!/ To all the revolutionaries! Let's join the struggle/to defeat the colonialists. /Let's join the struggle /to defeat the imperialists./Oh, Sahrawi revolutionary people! /We are revolutionaries! /And the Sahrawi free land is for Sahrawis!"

While the music is the sound of acoustic instruments and percussion, there is a sharpness to its rhythm that drives the point of the song home. Brahim's vocals are still as smooth and melodic as ever, but in this instance, we hear the iron core that resides at her centre – the part of her that was attracted to the sounds of The Clash and their calls for social justice.

Few people are aware of the Sahrawi and their circumstances. Like other displaced people around the world, they have little or no say on the world's stage and are relegated to the back-burner in the face of bigger and more popular movements. 

With Mawja, Aziza Brahim is making sure there's at least one voice speaking for her people. She sings of their hopes and dreams, of the past and the present, and of what is possible for the future. Her soft and melodious voice has the seductive power of the best soul singers and the elegance of jazz greats like Billie Holiday. 

Combined with the power of the music created by her band, we cannot help but be swept into her reality. Beautiful and passionate, Mawja is a wonderful album that deserves to be heard for both its artistic and sociopolitical merits. 

Richard Marcus

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