The album Sahari by Saharawi vocalist Aziza Brahim is the top album in the December 2019 Transglobal World Music Chart. Aziza worked with the renowned Spanish world music artist Amparo Sánchez of the band Amparanoia on the album’s pre-production, and the focus of Sahari’s sound, although rooted in Saharawi tradition, is broader, with programming and keyboards a vital part of the new style.
Aziza grew up in a refugee camp in the Algerian desert, together with thousands of other Saharawi who were removed from their homes in the Western Sahara. She currently lives in Spain.
In Baba Salama Said’s passport it said he was born in Oran on January 14 of 1969. It was an Algerian passport of convenience, recognized by the UN, in order to give legal support to somebody who lived in a refugee camp. What is certain is that Salama Baba was born on that date, not in Oran but in the Auserd, the real Auserd, occupied by Morocco together with the rest of the territory of the Western Sahara.
As many other Saharawis, he was forced to go into exile when Morocco and Mauritania, with the approval of Spain, divided the territory among themselves and took over the former Spanish colony. He was a boy hardly six years old and he had to witness the horror of the war, the terrible flight, and a life change that he could hardly understand. The only consolation was the comfort provided by his family and his people when they lifted tents amid a stony area in the Algerian Hamada, to create the refugee camps where the Saharawis settled.
The settlement that serves as the entrance to the camps is called Rabouni and is near Tinduf. There are numerous offices belonging to the bureaucracy of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. And it was there in Rabouni where Baba Salama formed his first musical group in which he tried to combine traditional songs with others of more modern inspiration. His band mates were Boika Hassan (Mariem Hassan’s brother) also on the guitar, Tayeb on bass, Gringo on drums, and singers Ali Chej and Jalihena. The group was called Naji.
In January of 1998, a crew of Spanish musicians and producers visited the 4 Saharawi camps, carrying out recordings in each one of them. No one noticed Baba Salama because he was not part of any of the official groups of traditional music that worked in each one of the wilayas [administrative subdivision or province].
He was discovered by chance when, as they were packing their suitcases to return to Spain, the team of producers came across him in a shed that his band used as rehearsing space in Smara. Rehearsing with him were Mohamed Salec playing the tidinit (a Saharawi instrument of dug out wood and a leather cover, similar to a four-stringed lute); Husein on a very simple flute; Fatata, a percussionist, playing the tebal (large North African side drum) with one hand and a conga with the other; and Shueta, an exceptional singer who had a sore throat at the time.
Baba’s guitar style was very different to what the recording crew had listened to during the two week stay in the desert. Accustomed to Nayim Alal’s technique, who had nearly become the official guitarist of the expedition, they found Salama Baba’s feel, with his Spanish guitar, extremely sweet and decided to improvise a recording right there. It was an instrumental piece, since the singer, Shueta, could not articulate a word. “Dance of Smara” appeared in the album In spite of the wounds [which is included in the boxed set Music of Western Sahara], dedicated to Saharawi women. Baba’s guitar recreated with its rhythm the trot of the camels in the desert. In the recording one can also detect a certain appreciation for Western music that would later show in his future works.
Later, Baba married a Saharawi woman and moved to Seville (Spain). That way he was able to participate in recordings made in Madrid. The Spanish capital was the base for several European tours made by Saharawi band Leyoad. Recording sessions were made little by little, at Axis studios, depending on which musician or singer participated in the corresponding tour. Baba earned the trust of Saharawi singer Mariem Hassan, whom he knew from the Smara camp.
In 2002 an album came out that catapulted Mariem Hassan to stardom. On Mariem Hassan with Leyoad, Baba contributed the majority of the songs and guitar parts. For the live presentations of the album in 2003 and 2004, Mariem Hassan was finally able to form a stable group. By that time Baba Salama, who had gotten a divorce, was devoted in body and soul to the project. The band included Boika Hassan on the second guitar, Mariem on vocals, and a percussionist and dancer, completing the group. Fatta Sadaf performed in the concerts held in Spain, and Vadiya mint el Hanevi, joined the band when they traveled abroad.
Baba Salama had a major influence in Mariem Hassan with Leyoad. He wrote many of the songs and his guitar can be heard throughout the album. He achieved a laid back sound that only old bluesmen dominate.
In 2003, Nar was released. It was the debut album by his friend Nayim Alal. The strong musical personality of Nayim dominates the recording. Baba collaborated with Nayim and enjoyed seeing how Saharawi musicians were finally able to capture many of the ideas that they had pursued for many years.
The following work in which he participated is Medej, released in 2004. For the first time the Saharawis published an album entirely dedicated to the Prophet Mohammed. On this CD, where the desert blues is clearly visible, Baba and Nayim Alal recorded a track together titled “Mijairis.” This name corresponds with the instrument Nayim invented. Baba played it and Nayim accompanied him on the tidinit. It is a delightful piece which shows the kind nature of Baba Salama in each note.
By that year, Mariem Hassan’s project was finalized. During the more than fifty concerts played throughout Europe, the musicians practiced their new style and perfected the songs. They recovered old songs to which they gave new life. They played a breathtaking version of “The intifada,” Mariem Hassan’s most famous song. And they rushed without any prejudice to mix the haul with the blues, or whatever they considered appropriate for Mariem?s music.
The recording of Deseos (Desires), was the fruit of the intense work during 2004. Baba Salama assumed the musical direction of the album. A lot of his knowledge and humanity are included there. He gave Mariem everything she needed to feel comfortable and confident. And she sang like she had never sang before.
In March of 2005, Mariem was hospitalized in Spain for breast cancer treatment. Baba Salama took advantage of the sudden tour break imposed by Mariem’s illness to return to the camps. He went back whenever he had an opportunity. Upon returning to Spain in the middle of summer, everything happened very fast. Baba was suffering from leukemia in a very advanced phase, which was putting an end to his life.
On August 24, at half past six in the morning, his heart failed. On Sunday, August 28, his body returned to the camps in the airplane in which Saharawi children returned from spending the summer with Spanish families. His son remained in Seville, young Hamad Babas Salama, barely four years old. He has a Spanish passport.
[Biography adapted and translated by Angel Romero from an original by Manuel Dominguez. Courtesy of Nubenegra].
Mariem expresseed herself naturally in Hassania, the language of the Saharawis, but had serious difficulties with Spanish. That’s why she rarely agreed to be interviewed. This is why this interview, reproduced from a long encounter with Carmelo Lattassa, has double value.
“We have our language.” (Hassania, closely related to the Berbers of Mauritania) “The Mauritanians have the same music that we do but ours is more modern, they have the haul (aboriginal rhythm and form) as we do.
Our songs are different because we talk of our problems since we fled from the Sahara, songs of the children crying because their fathers went to war and never came back, they talk about the women whose husbands and fathers went to war, never to return, they talk about the deaths, of life, of politics, of god, of our land to which we hope to return. I have a song about my brothers. It’s called “Tus Ojos Lloran” (Your Eyes Cry) and talks about my brothers and my father.
One afternoon, in a rehearsal, a friend of mine came. She called me away to tell me that my brothers were dead. So, I cried and after that I started to sing. When I wrote the song, I thought of my brothers, in the time we lived in the Sahara, climbing the mountain with them, entering our haima (large desert tent, also known as jaima) with them, talking with them, living with them, and I ask myself “where are they?”
After the Spaniards abandoned the Saharawi colony, the Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. The Saharawi people fled to Algerian lands and founded the S.D.A.R. (Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, recognized by 76 countries).
The Mauritanian perseverance ceased, but even today, we are waiting for a referendum on the land, occupied by the Moroccan government. The Saharawis confronted the military occupation, but the Moroccan army superiority brought many deaths to the Saharawis.
When I have problems, I say: “Mulana (God), help me.” Life is like that. If someone has problems, if someone is ill, someone is dead, someone lives well, someone lives badly, someone has problems with his family, his government, his work, life goes on. For example, if my husband died, did I die too? No, I have to think about how I should live and how my children are going to live in the future. That’s how it is.
You, the Westerners, have walls to hang your portraits. We, instead, live in cloth tents. When it rains, the water gets in the tent and wets the mats and everything. When it is cold, it’s really cold. (In the desert, temperatures can reach below freezing point.) Most of the people have nothing to heat the tents with. When it’s hot, it can reach over 110 degrees and that makes life really hard.
We cook all the dry foods: lentils, beans, and things like that because they last longer. Then we go to the wells to look for the water to cook it. The water is really salty, but that’s what there is. We make the bread, the food and everything with the hands and we all live inside the jaimas, the mother, the father, the children and the one who comes to visit.
When I started to compose, I didn’t have an instrument with me, only a drum. Before, we sat in circles and sang for ourselves but each year we do more things. We go out and do it differently. Now we gather Shueta, Mudleila (Saharawi singers) and me, together with two guitar players and compose. But when I’m alone, I compose only with a drum. I do the lyrics and then the music, like this, until the song comes out. Sometimes it works well, sometimes badly, like this. I only write the lyrics. The music is by heart.
A poet sees a woman, and describes her and makes a poem, but I don’t, I do things singing. Before the war, we did songs of love and beautiful things but the war and the lack of our land made us talk of more important things about the kids, the martyrs, the war.
The haul has really strict rules of memory and interpretation. The contemporary singers usually write the lyrics but the rest of it is still being done in the old way. The accompaniment is with the tebal, a drum of about 60 centimeters in diameter, made of a dug out wooden bowl and leather from the skin of a camel or goat. It is played with the hands, almost exclusively by women, producing a dry and deep sound at the same time.
From its origin, they used the tidinit, an instrument of dug out wood and a leather lid, similar to a four-stringed guitar. Since some time ago, the guitar is used in the songs because of its harmonic richness. It’s interpreted from the forms of the tidinit, that’s why it sounds so different and is especially difficult for the Westerner, accustomed to the classical guitar.
When I sing for someone different than my people, I feel happy, always happy. And when the audience applauds, I do it better, with more joy. I was married two times.
My first husband didn’t want me to sing or to do these cultural things. When I got married, it was in the old wayhe talks with my family, my brothers, but not with me. I gave him three sons but I didn’t like his attitude. He didn’t like me to do anything, neither singing, nor working in the wilaya, so I told him that I couldn’t continue this way. Then, he signed a letter saying that he released me because the woman cannot separate from the men by Islamic law (Sharia).
But I chose my present husband, first you have to build the love and then the rest. We participate in everything the men do because our Islam is easy, it’s not an imposed Islam. I travel many time out of the wilaya, to different countries and my husband sees it as normal. When I return I go back to my other work, as a nurse. I always think of returning to the occupied Sahara. I only think of return.
The interview with Carmelo Lattassa ends with this illustration:
Mariem’s Spanish was simple and limited. She had great difficulties to answer the questions. When she was asked for the first time if she found poetry in everyday life, she answered, “When I’m in the camps, I get up at seven and get the children ready for school. Sometimes I leave the lentils in the kitchen and ask my neighbor to take care of them. Then I go to work, and when I return, I find the kitchen burnt. Then, I do couscous, I do rice, preserves with milk…”
[Translated by José Ocaña and Tess Mangum-Ocaña. Edited by Angel Romero]
Mariem Hassan died on August 22, 2015 in her haima at the Smara refugee camp.
Zazie Schubert-Wurr and Manuel Domínguez wrote and published her memoirs in a book in Spanish and English titled La voz indómita, that also included a CD and DVD.
The Indomitable Voice is the title of a new book about the late Mariem Hassan, one of the greatest singers from the Western Sahara in past decades. The authors are Zazie Schubert-Wurr and Manuel Domínguez. The writers will present the book on Saturday, March 18, at 12:00 noon at the Sin Tarima bookstore in Madrid, Spain. They will be joined by Agaila Mohamed, Mariem’s youngest daughter.
The book describes in real time the 18 years in which the authors accompanied Mariem Hassan during her professional activities as a singer, as well as her effort as cultural ambassador of the Saharawi people around the world.
Intensely illustrated, the 264-page books collects a total of 1,060 images. The package includes a CD with unreleased songs and a DVD with unreleased audiovisual material that provides a profile of the artistic and human stature of Mariem Hassan.
Librería Sin Tarima
Calle de la Magdalena 32
Metro station Antón Martín, Madrid
Being a self-styled traditionalist doesn’t mean my musical tastes are so staunch that I shun any sonic adventurousness that steps over traditional boundaries. Cross the line into an over-reliance on gimmickry (which can take the form of too much technology or pop pandering for commercial purposes), and you’ve lost me. Taking chances by mixing traditions or styles in ways that leave musical integrity unscathed? You’ve got my attention.
Aziza Brahim, a Sahrawi woman who was born in an Algerian refugee camp as the war over the Western Sahara region was raging, doesn’t exactly go in for traditional Sahrawi music on Abbar el Hamada (Glitter Beat, 2016). Having lived and studied in Cuba and currently a citizen of Spain, some of her songs have an expected, and very welcome, Iberian and Latin edge. She even sings in Spanish for much of the album, the title of which refers to rocky desert landscapes and subject-wise deals with activist concerns like the ongoing plight of the Sahrawi.
The disc also digs into a measure of the “desert blues” sound that many Saharan musicians have become known for, as well as a few galloping rhythms that suggest a more laid back version of Senegalese m’balax (which has always had its own Latin flavors).
Brahim isn’t as frequent in her use of wailing, undulating tones as a lot singers with Arabic roots tend to be. Her approach is more pensive, but she sharpens her tone when needed, and partly because she also plays the bowl-shaped tbal drum while she sings, her voice fits the grooves as naturally as the grooves themselves, be they acoustic or electric. A stunning release all around.
She’s already a groundbreaker for use of the Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed viola) in the music of her native Spain, and now Ana Alcaide takes things a few steps further with Leyenda- World Music Inspired by Feminine Legends (ARC Music, 2016). Female folkloric characters from various cultures (including Spain, Mexico, China, Scotland and Alcaide’s own imagination) are celebrated in songs that range from lullaby-like softness to ritualistic and pulsating.
Nyckelharpa, baroque guitars and bouzouki are sweetened with other strings, reeds, percussion and celestial production values that surround Alcaide’s gracefully penetrating vocals and construct a pair of instrumentals that seem to tell otherworldly tales without any words at all. This is music that could serve as a soundtrack for any ancient or modern fantasy worth conjuring, or bring about just enough of a dream state to take you blissfully away from reality for a while. Either way, it’s stunning.
Chicha, the Peruvian-originated, organ-tweaked, fuzz guitar-laden psychedelic style of music with similarities to Colombian cumbia and Jamaican dub, continues on its revival path courtesy of Austin-based band Money Chicha. Their debut album Echo En Mexico (Vampisoul, 2016) is an irresistibly throbbing beat fest where unyielding layers of Latin percussion support keyboards, guitars and bass that are as trippy in their wall of sound as they are intertwined in their tightness. And tightness is indeed the key.
The chicha sound is one that must not lag in its skipping rhythms or spot-on melodic mesh that weighs in somewhere between surf rock, alternative Latin, Andean tradition, the ghost of Arsenio Rodriguez and music that simply wouldn’t appeal to polite society in Lima, Bogota or, well, Austin. Money Chicha go their own way by eliminating vocals entirely and giving the tracks a subtle funk push with a little extra breathing room among the instruments, resulting in a disc that satisfies to the frenzied max.
Lovers of African drumming and African music in general will happily tune in to West to West (ARC Music, 2016) by Nii Okai Tagoe. He’s a master of many a drum and percussion instrument affiliated with the Motherland and treads a beaten (beating?) path away from tradition by lacing his danceable pieces with horns, keyboards, violin, harp, bass and guitar.
Some unexpected turns are taken with arrangements as well, such as the blues sway of “3 Monkeys.” Not surprising for a gent who’s played with outfits as diverse as Baka Beyond and African Head Charge. This sort of thing has been done before, but Tagoe certainly does it spot-on.
A very different take on percussion and its relationship to the human voice can be heard on Chiaroscuro (Bent Records, 2016) a collaboration involving Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus. Nexus is a virtuosic percussion ensemble; Prana is a group of singers who all specialize in singing two pitches simultaneously. That dual pitch knack helped inspire Garry Kvistad of Nexus to invent the vistaphone, four octaves worth of chimes gathered into one instrument and the perfect companion to the harmonic series scale of notes that the singers use to achieve their second level of vocal prowess.
The grandiosely-titled tracks on the album (“The Rituals of Dusk,” A Crown of Radiant Fire,” etc.) combine orchestral drums, gongs, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, voices and the debuting vistaphone to create music that I can only describe as equal parts refined and primal, rhythmic and atmospheric, structured and seemingly spontaneous, eerie and comforting, earthy and not of this earth. Repeating patterns of percussion and wordless voices ascend to mesmerizing heights and hover there, exploring in sonic terms the disc’s titular concept of light and dark contrasting yet harmonizing.
The three concluding compositions (including a mind-and-ear-altering Balinese monkey chant) are voices unaccompanied and lose nothing in the absence of their percussive counterparts. So is this disc the pinnacle of traditional music, the complete lack of it or something else altogether? Get it and decide for yourself. And prepare to be spellbound.
I don’t know a great deal about traditional Welsh music and thus can’t say how closely 9Bach adheres to it with their latest release, Anian (Real World, 2016). But I am quite taken with the shimmery emotiveness of singer/pianist/composer/lyricist Lisa Jen’s lead vocals, as well as the sparse yet very sturdy support her bandmates offer on guitar, bass, percussion, harp, hammer dulcimer and harmonies.
While some of the instruments used reportedly stray from tradition, the end result is a perfect fit, with modern production adding a kind of cool mist to softly enveloping music that often has a melancholy, longing feel offset by pure beauty. Anian is one to savor repeatedly.
There’s also a bonus disc, Yn Dy Lais (In Your Voice), that features Welsh-influenced poetry and storytelling rendered in English by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Rhys Ifans. It’s meant to make the nuances of the Welsh language more accessibly artsy and is worth a listen, but the lovely sounds on the first disc are the true reason to get this album.
A world away but still bringing tradition to a different level, Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars take music with roots as old as the Louisiana bayou itself and jolt it full of rock, soul, blues, zydeco and funk energy. Gulfstream (Octavia Records, 2016) is a swampy, sultry, swaggering, sizzling slab of deep-south musical gumbo that will delight anyone who loves the celebratory sounds of New Orleans and Lafayette and appreciates the need to cool down for a ballad like the Aaron Neville-ish title track. It’s a party, albeit from the heart.
Richard Bona, the “African Sting,” melds his smooth Cameroonian roots music with the sounds of Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano on Heritage (Qwest Records, 2016). African and Latin musical traditions have been best friends for a long, long time thanks to their shared origins, and Mandekan Cubano’s piano, dual percussion, trumpet and trombone lineup expertly underpins Bona’s joyous salsa-infused numbers and his softer side. Primarily a bassist but adept on numerous instruments, Bona adds unexpected touches like electric sitar to the range of Afro-Latin delights that comprise a very fine release.
Brazilian music, a familiar world staple for decades, has more recently been fused with electronica to degrees that some traditionalists have accepted and others rejected. Put me in the former category. It’s telling that Luisa Maita waited six years since her first album to put out a followup; perhaps she wanted to see how the Brazilian/electronica scene would play out in the interim. Her sophomore release Fio da Memoria (Cumbancha, 2016) has the breathy, sensual feel that’s nearly a given when it comes to female Brazilian singers, and the tunes roll out on a foundation of grooves rooted in samba, even if they’re not always rendered on organic instruments.
Maita’s steamy sentiments translate well, as the sung-in-English “Around You” demonstrates, and she’s got some stories of substance to tell, like “Na Asa,” a musical tale of dreams realized. Fio da Memoria is a keeper for sure, but Maita’s vocal mix of subtle and searing would benefit even more from backing that likewise balances real and electronic sounds equally.
If you need a reminder of how well traditional Ethiopian music meshes with jazz, The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz (World Music Network, 2016) will handily serve. Trailblazer Mulatu Astatke kicks off with the horn-heavy proclaiming of “Gamo” and things jump ever further back into the Swinging Addis feel of the 60s and 70s from there.
While at only 9 tracks the collection can’t cover the whole spectrum, what you get is choice. Serpentine instrumentals are the bulk of it, including NYC’s Budos Band providing impressive overseas translation of the sound, but the soulful vocal thrills of Tlahoun Gessesse and Gabriella Ghermandi show just how large a role male and female voices also played (and play) on the scene. A superb sampler.
Rising Saharawi artist Aziza Brahim and her band will be performing live in London on Tuesday, 26 April 2016, at the Elgar Room (Royal Albert Hall). She will return to the UK on 29 July 2016 to play at WOMAD Charlton Park.
A musician and activist, Aziza Brahim will be presenting her new album ‘Abbar el Hamada‘ (Across the Hamada), a mix of Western Saharan sounds, Spanish flamenco rumba and West African music.
Raised in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Algerian desert, and living in exile for more than two decades (first in Cuba and currently in Spain), Brahim’s life and music embodies both the tragedies and hopes of the present-day migrant and refugee experience.
Western Saharan musician and activist Aziza Brahim explains, “I’m not able to separate politics, cultural and personal concerns. So, the focus of my music is all of these areas at the same time. Political, because of its commitment to the denunciation of social injustice. Cultural, because it searches for new musical ideas. Personal, because it expresses the worries of a person that aspires to live with dignity in a better world.”
For Ms. Brahim taking on the issues of today’s refugee crisis is both personal, having been raised in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Algerian desert and a fuel for the creative process for her latest recording Abbar el Hamada or Across the Hamada, out on the Glitterbeat label.
Conjuring up the familiar bluesy revolving rhythms of the Sahara and poking at the powers that control the flow of migrants and refugees, Abbar el Hamada is an expressive, yet restrained, call for compassion with Ms. Brahim’s plaintive vocals against a backdrop filled with plumy guitar lines and neatly worked African percussion.
With the 2012 recording Mabruk with Gulili Ma and the 2014 release of Soutak to her credit, the Saharawi singer has fashioned a smoothly produced recording with Abbar el Hamada, enveloping the desert blues in the warm, rich percussion of West Africa.
Recorded in her adopted home of Barcelona, Spain with producer Chris Eckman, Senegalese percussionist Sengane Ngom, drummer Aleix Tobias, Malian guitarist Kalilou Sangare, bassist and arranger Guilem Aguilar and guitarist Ignasi Cusso, Abbar el Hamada is possessed by a kind of laid back bluesy intensity that is captivating.
Beyond the message, Abbar el Hamada doesn’t rely on sharp edges, but instead enfold the message in a sleekly worked sound as with opening “Buscando la Paz” and the revolving rhythms of “Calles de Dajla.” Darkly lush tracks like “El Canto de la Arena” and “Mani,” with guest guitarist Samba Toure, are real treats with the sorrowful vocals of Ms. Brahim working their plaintive appeal against a quiet kind of blues.
“La Cordillera Negra” is another standout track with its subversive Spanish flair, slinky guitar lines and, believe it or not, a real percussion solo that is rich and rewarding.
Closing track “Los Moros” is just as delicious with its camel plodding across the desert rhythms and moody feel.
Abbar el Hamada is testament to Ms. Brahim’s social activism, as well as her ever increasing collection of fans, proving that while the road may be difficult music can lighten the load.