Tony Greenstein | 31 July 2015 | Post Views:

Saharan singer and actress Aziza Brahim has stated that she no longer plans to
perform at the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival in September.
an announcement posted on the singer’s Facebook page, she said in Spanish and English that ”I’ve
decided to cancel my concert at Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival. I want to
express sincerely my followers’ understanding, support and the respect in which
most of them have shown their opinions.”
to a press release by BDS
South Africa
, some of Brahim’s “supporters and fans engaged
with her via social media urging the artist to cancel her Israeli gig in
solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
release went on to say that campaigners had pointed out the parallels between Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara and Israel’s
abuses of Palestinian rights.
such, BDS South Africa called Brahim’s decision “an example of internationalism
and the capacity to be involved in ones own struggle yet at the same time lend
solidarity to others.”

Africa’s last colony

Brahim was born in the Sahrawi refugee camps which were established following
the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara in 1975. Partly educated in Cuba, she
won a Sahrawi national music competition in 1995 and launched a singing and
acting career.
of her songs are based on poems by her grandmother, al-Khadra bint Mabruk, known as the “poet of the rifles” in the Sahrawi
national movement.
Sahara has been called “Africa’s last colony.” Divided between Morocco and Mauritania when Spain
withdrew in the 1970s, against the wishes of the Sahrawi people’s anti-colonial
movement, thousands of Sahrawi people have lived in refugee camps in Algeria
for four decades.
two sections of Western Sahara are split by the world’s second-longest wall – a
fate which is familiar to Palestinians. As with Palestine, the international
community has failed to act on the issue of Western Sahara, with a referendum
plan announced in 1991 never implemented.

Aziza Brahim: Queen of Western Sahara Desert Blues

The life and music of singer Aziza Brahim is irrevocably bound to her
heritage as a Saharawi native of Western Sahara, a
small country sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania. Born into a refugee
camp, Brahim learned how to sing from her revolutionary grandmother, and grew
up to make music that speaks out against the oppression of her homeland. We
take a closer look at Western Sahara’s voice of resistance.

Due to its lack of self-governance, Western Sahara is considered to be the
last African colony. Although the country was originally controlled by Spain,
when the Spanish ended their colonisation of the territory in 1975, Morocco
made the decision to take over the area. After the Moroccan invasion, half of
the Saharawi population remained in Western Sahara, while the other half was
forced to flee to southwest Algeria, where one of the largest refugee camps in
the world was established. Brahim was born in the refugee camps in 1976. She
never met her father, who remained behind in Western Sahara when the rest of
her family fled to Algeria. While living in the refugee camps, she was exposed
to the extreme conditions of living with 200,000 other Saharawi who all
depended on international aid as a main source of survival, and where
temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 1993, a ceasefire was enacted when the Polisario Front, the
Saharawi liberation movement for Western Saharan independence, and Morocco
agreed to end the war and hold a referendum. This would allow the Saharawi to
have a chance to vote for self-governance or integration with Morocco. However,
20 years after the ceasefire, and 40 years after the start of the war, the
referendum still has not taken place.

While growing up, Brahim was greatly influenced by the many musicians in her
family including her grandmother, Al-Kadra. Known as the ‘poet with the gun,’
her grandmother was one of the most influential female poets in the camps and
has been referred to as the symbol of freedom and resistance. Brahim was
encouraged by her family to compose poetry for her grandmother and later
perform with her. At age 11, in 1987, Brahim received a scholarship to study in
Cuba, but in 1995, she went back to the camps after she was no longer allowed
to study music due to her scholarship requirements.

After going back to the camps, Brahim’s music career began to take off. She
won first place at the annual National Culture Festival, a music festival
organised by the Saharawi Minister of Culture in the camps. After winning,
Brahim joined the National Saharawi Music Group, a group dedicated to
representing Saharawi music through tours around Algeria and Mauritania. In the
same year as her collaboration with the Saharawi Minister of Culture, two of her
songs became hits when they were released by the Spanish label Nubenegra as a
part of the album A Pesar de las Heridas, a record intended to celebrate
Saharawi music by releasing songs by various Saharawi artists. Her talent was
then discovered in 1998 by the popular Saharawi group, Leyoad, who invited her
to join them. This allowed her to travel to Spain, France and Germany on their
European tour.

Upon her return from Leyoad’s European tour, she began to record music with
various Tuareg musicians for the Saharawi National Radio. Thousands heard her
music and she began her rise to fame soon afterward. In order to further the
growth of her music career, she moved to Spain, where she began to compose her
own songs and tour around the country. In 2007, she began her first
international collaboration with the Spanish-Latin jazz band Yayabo. A year
later, she founded the group Gulili Mankoo, which brought together singers and
composers from Western Sahara, Colombia and
During her time with the group, Brahim’s own style shifted to a focus on blues
and rock.

With the collaboration of Gulili Mankoo, Brahim released her first album, Mi
Canto. The album was produced by Brahim, but it was released worldwide by the
French label Reaktion and was soon ranked number one in the World Music list.
Some tracks, like the title, are in Spanish, while the other songs are sung in
a mix of Spanish and Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect that traces back to Yemen and
is spoken mainly in Western Sahara and Mauritania.

In 2009, Brahim’s international collaborations continued to
expand. She recorded the song Interrapcion – Crisol 09 with the Basque rap
group Oreka Tx and joined their tours around Spain and France. In the same
year, Brahim was also featured in Listen To The Banned, an album dedicated to
censored international music, especially from the Middle East and Asia.

In addition to her music, Brahim began her acting career in 2011, in the
movie Wilaya, also known as The Tears of the Sand, by the Spanish director
Pedro Pérez Rosado. The film tells a story of a Saharawi family trying to cope
with the sudden death of their mother, as well as the visit of their little
sister who has been living most of her life in Spain. The film accurately
portrays the situation of many Saharawi families who have members who leave to
study abroad for many years. Brahim not only acted in the film, but also
produced its soundtrack. Wilaya received two awards at the Abu Dhabi Film
Festival and Malaga Film Festival, including the award for Best Original
Soundtrack. Brahim was also given the Freedom to Create Prize, an award given
those who use the arts to fight oppression and advocate for the common good of

In 2012, Brahim released her second album Mabruk, which translates to
congratulations in Arabic. The album was released to honor her grandmother and
congratulate her on all of her accomplishments. The album featured the
collaboration of the popular Saharawi poet Bahia Mahmud Awah. The Dutch
Magazine Heaven listed Mabruk as the album of the year. The success of the
album landed Brahim a performance in the well-known international festival World of Music, Arts and Dance

For her other albums,
Brahim has used traditional African musical styles such as wolof and bambara,
with instruments like the djembe and darbuka. Her newest album, Soutak,
translated as ‘your voice’, was released in February 2014 and was dedicated to
the events happening in Western Sahara and Mali. In an interview with the blog
News and Noise, Brahim stated her reasons to dedicate the album to Mali and her
musical influences in the album:

‘I have never been there, but Mali is seen as the cradle of the
African music. I am as African as Arabian and I can relate myself to what
happens over there – the extremists trying to ban the music not long ago –
that’s why I want to show my support. Moreover, the music has always appealed
to me. I am a big fan of the late Ali Farka Touré. You will hear some
influences of the Desert-blues, especially in the song Lagi. The main guitarist
on Soutak is Kalilou Sangare from Mali.’ (
News and Noise)

The song Julud mentions her mother and honours all the sacrifices her mother
has made for her. In this song, she used the tabal as the main instrument in
addition to modern instruments. The tabal is a traditional Saharawi instrument
played only by women.

Throughout the nine-track album, Brahim continues to mix
Hassaniya and Spanish in her music. For Soutak, Brahim collaborated with the
Spanish musicians Guillem Aguilar and Nico Roca, as well as the African
musicians Kalilou Sangare and Badra Abdallahe. Throughout the album, Brahim
mixes Arabian, Andalusian, African and Latin sounds, which had great influence
on her while she lived in each location. The album, produced by Chris Eckman and
released by the Glitterbeat Records, was ranked number one no less than twice
in the World Music Charts Europe (WMCE). The success of Soutak landed her an
appearance on the TV shows Later with Jools Holland in the UK and Vrije
Geluiden in Amsterdam, along with interviews with dozens of international
magazines and blogs.

Through her music, Brahim aims to be a voice of resistance, as
she mentioned her interview for News and Voice:

‘No, I am not a politician. I am one of three generations who
lives in a refugee camp and I represent my life and music. I feel the urge to
give my music a context. The Saharawi live under Moroccan control and we are not
allowed to express ourselves culturally. If we don’t protect our culture, our
people will vanish. We have an oral tradition. How can we respect ourselves if
we don’t have an identity? The lyrics are not only about the Saharawi, but
about the suffering of other people as well. There is a global dimension. Every
song tells a true story, and it’s not always about politics.’

Brahim feels a sense of responsibility to give an identity to
those who face the hardships of the refugee camps and the lack of a peaceful
solution to the long-standing conflict between Western Sahara and Morocco. With
the combination of the oral tradition of Saharawi culture and the trend of the
newer generation going abroad to study, there is a tendency to forget the
importance of maintaining the tradition of Saharawi poetry and music. However,
by collaborating with Saharawi and international musicians, Brahim has given
the Saharawi a name, identity and reputation within the refugee camps and in
Spain where most of the Saharawi who emigrated to find a better life currently
live. Additionally, she has been influential in Western Sahara, where half of
the Saharawi population continues to live under Moroccan occupation, and also
abroad, where people from all walks of life are introduced to her passionate
voice and diva style of desert blues.

By Agaila Abba 

Posted in

Tony Greenstein

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