Interview with the great Saharawi singer Aziza Brahim

Aziza Brahim - Photo by Guillem Moreno
Aziza Brahim – Photo by Guillem Moreno
Aziza Brahim, one of the leading singers in the Saharawi music scene has released a new album titled Soutak under the German label Glitterbeat Records. Currently, Aziza lives in Spain and her music is a cultural crossroads where Saharawi traditional roots are mixed with elements of modern music as well as West African and Spanish influences.

Aziza was born in the refugee camps on the border between Algeria and the Western Sahara. As a teenager, Aziza went to study high school in Cuba. The economic crisis experienced in Cuba in the 1990s didn’t allow her to study music in Cuban universities so she returned to the camps in Algeria. Back at the camps, Aziza performed with several groups as a singer and instrumentalist.

In 2000 she moved to Spain. There, Aziza formed the Saharawi-Spanish band Gulili Mankoo that recorded two self-produced albums: the EP ‘My Song’ (2008 ) and the album ‘Mabrook’ (2012), released by the French label Reaktion, specialized in the music of the Sahara.

Aziza Brahim - Soutak</a
Aziza Brahim – SoutakSoutak‘ (“Your Voice”) came out in 2014 and was produced Chris Eckman (Tamikrest, Ben Zabo, Dirtmusic), distributed by Glitterbeat worldwide.

Aziza talks about her music and the Saharawi music scene with Angel Romero.

When did you start learning music?

Since I can remember, I have practiced music because at home it was common. We met Fridays to sing the medeh (traditional spiritual music), and the rest of the week music was also present. We had fun with musical games. My grandmother proposed some verses and we had to make up melodies. She decided which was the most beautiful. I spent the day imagining these familiar melodies to win contests.

What was your first musical instrument?

First, the voice and handclaps, later a carpet, and then a water barrel to simulate a tabal. Anything to make beats. After a few years I was finally able to learn guitar

[caption id="attachment_29926" align="alignright" width="300"]Aziza Brahim playing tabal – Photo by Angel Romero Aziza Brahim playing tabal – Photo by Angel Romero

What traditional instruments do Saharawi women usually play?

The tabal is the Saharawi female percussion instrument par excellence.

What are your main musical influences?

My main influences are African. I’d like to highlight the blues of Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita’s work. Also, Dimi Mint Abba, and Um Malouma Kalzzum.

Where do you live now?

In Barcelona.

Are you still in contact with the Saharawi community in the refugee camps?

Of course, most of my family lives there and I keep in touch both with them and with the reality they are living.

A few years ago Spanish musicians donated guitars to young Saharawi musicians. How’s the music scene now?

Aziza Brahim live - Photo by Ramon Rodriguez
Aziza Brahim live – Photo by Ramon Rodriguez
The music scene is influenced by the political situation of a country without a state, with some territories under Moroccan rule and much of our population in exile. In the cultural sphere this means censorship and lack of resources. There are competent musicians, interesting proposals that can never be heard because they are silenced by the repressive forces or by the lack of means for their professionalism.

In your performances you transmit a message of support to the historical rights of the Saharawi people. Do you think the problem of Western Sahara is known well enough?

The Spanish civil society is well aware of our situation and makes great efforts to cooperate with us by showing solidarity unprecedented in history. Maybe in Europe and America, even in other African countries, our situation is less known. On the other hand, the various Spanish governments are increasingly disassociating themselves from their responsibilities, even though they still retain sovereignty over the territory because of unfinished decolonization.

What are the main difficulties of the Saharawi people?

Chief among the difficulties is the separation of families, because of a nearly forty year conflict. In the occupied territories the main issue of my countrymen is the lack of freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, torture exercised by the Moroccan regime. Across the wall of shame, in the refugee camps, the greatest difficulty is the lack of water, food and basic health care. Keep in mind that international cooperation and the European humanitarian assistance earmarked through UNHCR for the Saharawis in exile has decreased a lot. It’s been many years resisting extreme conditions.

What musicians are you working with now and where are they based?

Aziza Brahim
Aziza Brahim
The band accompanying me now consists of Catalan musicians Guillem Aguilar on bass and Ignasi Cussó on guitar, Spanish-Argentine percussionist Nico Roca and Malian guitarist Kalilou Sangare. Also my sister Badra Abdallahe on backing vocals. All outstanding.

Are you performing outside Spain?

As a matter of fact, the first concerts of the new tour will be outside Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands…

Tell us a bit about the new album produced by the German label Glitterbeat, the songs, participating musicians, etc.

It is a rather simple acoustic proposal, focused on vocals with the musicians I mentioned earlier, in which I dared to play some rhythm guitar. The original lyrics are trying to draw attention to social issues that concern me a lot like refugees or landmines, or historical events such as the disproportionately violent dismantling of the Saharawi Gdeim Izik [protest camp]. But, without neglecting the sentimental or emotional issues. In short, they are songs of resistance.

Glitterbeat also has Tuareg musicians on its roster. Are there cultural contacts between Saharawi and Tuareg musicians?

Not as many as we would like. So far, we have had a mutual admiration. Although a few years ago I worked with Kel Assouf in Nomad’s Land Festival in Brussels. I really like Tinariwen’s approach, as well as Tamikrest, Terakaft and Bombino.

If you could gather the ideal musicians or groups, who would you call?

It would have been great to have a nice jam session between Ali Farka Touré and Jimi Hendrix, but as this is not feasible, I’d settle for a collaboration with Tiken Jah Fakoly, Salif Keita and Bombino.

What music are you listening to now?

I try to listen to the most varied musical styles. I listen to different radio stations and spend much time listening to new and old music from all places. But lately I listened to the Tiken Jah Fakoly African Revolution disc.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Besides music, I like watching movies, documentaries, TV shows, reading biographies and books on history and especially play with my kids.

What other projects do you have?

For now, the release of my latest album, Soutak and its tour.


Mi Canto (2008)

Mabruk (2012)

Soutak (2014)

[Translated by Angel Romero]

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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