Relatively few people will have been familiar with the music, culture and history of the Sahrawi people of north-western Africa before Aziza Brahim arrived on the music scene. Brahim has not only won an award for her original soundtrack to the film “Wilaya”, she has also released three albums. Her latest album, “Soutak”, spent three months at the top of the World Music Charts Europe in 2014. A review by Richard Marcus
At first glance, the Sahara Desert of North West Africa seems like one of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth. The film industry and other Western media usually show us images of trackless wastes, endless miles of sand dunes dotted with the occasional oasis and scrubby plants. However, this supposed barren land has been home to various nomadic peoples for centuries.
When the Arab and Ottoman armies started to move into Africa and establish their North African kingdoms, they found the tribesman already firmly established. While there were occasional alliances between the new kingdoms in Algeria and Morocco, the caliphs and emirs were wise enough not to attempt to impose their rule on the nomads.
Even the European colonial rulers had the initial good sense to leave well enough alone. It wasn’t until the French and the Spanish, the controllers of North Africa, discovered the wealth of natural resources buried beneath the desert that they began to interfere.
While the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) of Mali and Niger have been receiving world attention recently because of the attempted takeover of Northern Mali by fundamentalist terror groups with their very narrow definition of Islam, they aren’t the only nomadic people who have seen their land and culture stolen out from under them in the past 80 years.
The plight of the Sahrawi people
The area now known as Morocco was once home to the Sahrawi people. Like their Berber relatives to the south, they have been forced out of their traditional territories and into refugee camps and exile in Algeria through the new government’s policies.
While the number of refugees living in the four camps in northern Algeria is unclear (estimates range from the 40,000 claimed by the Moroccans to the 150,000 claimed by the Sahrawi governing body), the fact remains that they are a people without a home whose plight has been ignored by most of the world.
Unlike the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg), who have been very successful in exporting their culture, and by extension their circumstances, to the rest of the world through music, Sahrawi representation on the world stage has been minimal. One woman who has been trying very hard to make herself heard has been Aziza Brahim. Although a child of the refugee camps, she now calls Barcelona home, and it is there she recorded her album “Soutak” (translated as “Your Voice”) for Glitterbeat Records.
The title is very appropriate as the songs on the disc attempt to give voice to the plight of not only her own people, but also people in refugee camps all over the world. While she sings in Spanish, the booklet accompanying the disc comes with both English and Arabic translations of the lyrics, so both the people for whom the songs are meant and people in other parts of the world can understand their meaning.
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