This album poetically tells the story of the Sahrawi people, as well as the tale of the refugee experience through powerful vocals and a myriad of musical styles
It is always a treat to hear music that contains within it a blending of different styles and geographical inspirations. Aziza Brahim’s debut album is a classic example of this as she blissfully fuses traditional Arab music, Spanish flamenco, western blues music and West African beats. Soutak is indeed a joy to listen to, partially in lieu of these varied sonic influences, however, Brahim’s capacity to seamlessly weave together these genres has a melancholic undertone to it, as her melding together of the sounds of different regions is inspired by the agonising story that many Sahrawi people have had to endure over the course of the past half century.
“The painful story of refugees who are unable to return to their homeland is a global one that is familiar to many including Turkish Cypriots, Palestinians or Kurdish people.”
Brahim was born and raised in a Sahrawi refugee camp in the south-west of Algeria, six years after the tumultuous Western Sahara conflict began in 1970. Like many Sahrawi people born in refugee camps, her mother had fled from the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Unfortunately, unlike the Israel-Palestine conflict, this situation is not one that is covered intensively by much of the Western media, despite the fact that it is still firmly unresolved 50 years later. Therefore, in case you are unaware, let me give you a brief history lesson that informs Brahim’s lyrics, her voice and the sounds she uses that make her album hauntingly beautiful.
The dispute goes back to the end of the Second World War in which the United Nations was formed to try to promote international peace. The UN sought to end colonisation in a global peace-keeping mission and encouraged Western imperial powers to give back land across Africa, Asia and Latin America back to their rightful owners. However, towards the latter half of the 20th century, Western Sahara was the only country in Africa in which the decolonisation process had not been remotely resolved. In 1956, when Morocco gained independence from France and Spain, they immediately claimed that the Spanish Sahara (Western Sahara today) was theirs, and a year later, Mauritania made the same claim. These claims to the land came decades before the Polisario Liberation Front was set up in 1973, in a bid to put forward the claim that the land belonged to the indigenous people.
Their guerrilla warfare led to the evacuation of the country by the Spanish, who nonetheless left their mark on the people and its culture, as can be heard in Brahim’s album. The vacuum which was left behind led to a bloody 16-year-long war that begun months before the singer was born. Today, the conflict is ongoing as the Moroccan government continue to oppose an option for Sahrawi independence in a referendum despite it being initially agreed in the terms of the ceasefire. The painful story of refugees who are unable to return to their homeland is a global one that is familiar to many including Turkish Cypriots, Palestinians or Kurdish people. However, sometimes through pain comes great art, and that is exactly what Brahim managed to produce.
Perhaps the uniquely Spanish twang to her music was also induced by the fact that at the age 11, she received a scholarship to study in Cuba, a country plagued with its own problems in the time she was there, before returning to the refugee camps in 1995. Her music is sung mostly in Arabic, although there are three tracks in Spanish; Espejimos, La Palabra and the rather poignantly titled Manos Enemigas, which translates to ‘Enemy Hands’. However, the flamenco influence shines through not just on these songs but also on the title track Soutak, Julud, and my favourite song on the album Lagi. Whilst the album features many brilliant songs, for me Lagi (which means ‘Refugee’) is quintessential Brahim. The simplicity of the guitar and her sublime voice stripped back at the start of the song are both incredibly moving, before the song picks up a pace with a drumbeat that is hard to not sway your body along with.
The percussion on the album should not go unnoticed, particularly on Aradana and the opening track Gdeim Izik, which bring the piece a hypnotic quality. Whilst the final track, Ya Watani, (which means ‘My Land’) has the same trance-like beauty to it, Brahim achieves this for the most part without reliance on the tabla. She instead simply transmits the power of her mournful voice, which sounds almost as if it is in prayer, upon the listener. Often, music with deep political resonance can be trite or can even lose its poetic beauty with an over-reliance on conveying a message. However, where Brahim succeeds is that she is able to not necessarily translate a message to a foreign audience who cannot understand her lyrics, but rather she delivers a far deeper feeling and a sense that the plight of the Sahrawi people is deeply unjust. For her album to be diverse, interesting and powerful in such a way is a credit to her; it makes me believe that music really does have a role to play in unifying cultures and bringing light to stories of injustice that can perhaps land somewhere that can generate real and meaningful change.