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Aziza Brahim's Music Explores the Western Sahara's Sad Legacy with Beautiful Songs

The Sahrawi singer discusses the process and motivations behind her new album 'Abbar el Hamada,' which addresses 40 years of Western Sahara occupation.

Photo by Guillem Moreno, courtesy of Aziza Brahim

The Sahrawi refugee camps, located in Tindouf, Algeria, and formed for those fleeing the Western Sahara War, have been in existence for 40 years. After a certain number of years, differentiating between a semi-autonomous refugee camp and an occupied territory ceases to be a useful distinction. Born into both occupation and exile, it’s entirely understandable that the Sahel to Cuba to Spain singer Aziza Brahim, while making some of the most sublime and lilting music in (ugh) “world” music arena, maintains her chief concerns; return, freedom.


Aziza Brahim was born in the refugee camp in the Algerian dessert in 1976 and lived there until moving to Cuba to study at 11 (she would return to the refugee camp in the 90s and begin her musical ascent there, before settling, for now, in Spain). She’s widely acclaimed in West Africa and Europe and at very least well appreciated by those in the know here in the States. Her new album, Abbar el Hamada (translation: Across the Hamada), should give her a deserved push toward more recognition, as it’s an inarguably beautiful piece of work.

After 2013’s stark Soutak, Abbar el Hamada can feel almost groovy by comparison. It’s a potent mix of desert rock, Malian griot music and pop songs spanning the 70s to now, and, yes, plenty of body moving Afro-Cuban rhythms. Brahim’s voice remains in the spotlight—as it well should—as she sings about injustice, diaspora, love, her people’s oppression, and all the longing and ache that comes with the aforementioned issues. She was kind enough to answer some questions for Noisey. Check out and buy Abbar el Hamada from Glitterbeat.

Noisey: Your political and cultural circumstances are a huge part of your artistic narrative. Do you consider it a heavy responsibility or a joyful responsibility to talk about? Do you sometimes wish you would just be asked about songwriting or, like, chord progressions?
Aziza Brahim: Every artist has a responsibility. I assumed mine, and it doesn’t matter if it is heavy or joyful, I can't distentangle my circumstances from my music because both are complementary. But I can talk about politics and songwriting, too.


What was the basic nitty gritty of recording like? Do you workshop the songs while touring, or is what is written unchangeable?
When I make an album I try all the songs that I like—on the contrary it can be very hard to sing songs you don't like. Since I like all of the songs on Abbar el Hamada, it would be very difficult for me to choose only one song.

The basic nitty-gritty of the recording was the sad commemoration of 40 years of Western Sahara illegal occupation. After Soutak , I wanted to make a more energetic and assorted album as a necessary conversation between different Western Africa people and drums in order to implicate our musical neighborhood in our concerns. I have written some songs that have suffered little changes but not at all. The help of bassist Guillem Aguilar and the rest of the band, the work with the producer (Chris Eckman) and the different contributions of Xavi Lozano (flute on "El canto de la arena") or the blues master Samba Touré (guitar on "Mani") have made the rest.

When writing, is there certain music or musicians that you find yourself drawn to for inspiration? Are there any that you find you must avoid lest their inspiration overwhelm you?
I don't think of any specific musician, although all music I love could be inspiring for me. If I should give a reference I think Ali Farka Touré or Salif Keita are two great artists I admire.

While the new album has been getting deserved plaudits; there’s a notion that it’s a bit “smoothed out.” I tend to think it’s more a consistency of mood, but I can see the thinking behind it. But do you think there’s an expectation—from critics if not fans—of “grit” for some artists, especially those who play various African genres, that wouldn’t be expected of, say, Sade?
Ha, ha, ha. This expectation exists; some critics have declared that they miss more shouts and a heavier sound. This is the style of some African singers and artists, but it isn't the only African way to sing. I think all of these thoughts are related with many prejudices and essentialisms. Every artist has his or her own style and that must be respected as it is.

At the risk of being simplistic, the world seems to be more and more divided between those who want more walls or less. “Los Muros” can be taken as a specific reference to your own life or as a more universal statement of belief. Do you strive for specificity or prefer that your lyrics be taken as universally relatable? Does it matter?
Of course I think it matters. I prefer that my lyrics have both readings, local and global, but it’s obvious that I start from the specific reference to my own life.

Touching on that: Your tastes are varied and your influences wide. Do you think that comes from your specific global upbringing or something that comes with living in exile?
I don't know. Since I was a child, at the camps, I listened to as many tapes as possible. But, the different places I have lived have let me know more about different artists.

With a newfound international focus on the refugee experience, does this bring hope for a change for the Sahrawi people? With the attention comes an almost instant right wing backlash, as is being seen with the USA’s own appalling current elections. How does one avoid becoming dispirited at best, jaded at worst?
I wouldn't like to seem pessimistic, but I think it can be on the contrary: The situation of Saharawi people, after 40 years living into exile, could be an evidence of the incapacity of the international community to solve the international problems. And after, unfortunately the ultra right's backlash takes advantage of the unknown's fear. The sedentary people have the luck of not having to move their homeland, and they aren't able to understand the reasons that caused the migrant people to leave their countries. Definitely, it is a dangerous kind of ignorance. They would need to make an imaginative or empathic exercise in order to understand the migrant people.

Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.