Interview – Aziza Brahim (April 2016)

Aziza Brahim in Barcelona on March 27, 2015. Photo: Stefano Buonamici

Aziza Brahim’s new album Abbar el Hamada (out now on Glitterbeat) blew us away on first listening with its haunting tales of a life spent in refugee camps. It was therefore a great pleasure to get the chance to interview this important singer. Exiled as she is from the country of her ancestors and now residing in Spain she has become a spokesperson for refugees in the region of the Western Sahara and beyond, raising awareness of one of the most longstanding groups of refugees whose homeland is barricaded by a wall 2,700km long.

We began by asking about her family heritage and the musical traditions of her people. Aziza’s grandmother Lkhadra Mabruk was a famous poet, her mother was in Shahid El Uali (the first Saharawi national band) and her sisters also sing. Aziza also plays the tbal drum that is connected to the spiritual music known as medeh. We wondered, therefore, if music is particularly important to women in her culture.

Maybe. It is very curious. We must remember that most singers in Saharawi culture are women. But there are also men who are musicians and singers, and traditionally in my culture men and women make music together. I started to sing and play when I was six years old, more or less. It was a part of my childhood and our family games.

But when Aziza speaks of her childhood she is talking as someone who was actually born in the Algerian refugee camp known as El Hamada, a childhood spent amongst a community of displaced citizens. She has never lived in her native country due to border disputes over the lands of the Saharawi people. Many of her family are still trapped in refugee camps.

Yes, most of my family members are now surviving in the refugee camps of Tinduf, yet the traditional themes of my peoples’ music before the displacement were related, ironically, to the freedom of the Saharawi nomad life. The themes were very assorted: spiritual or quotidian themes, love, death, storytelling, the dramatisation of events, spreading knowledge and so on – and many of them were sarcastic! There is a very rich oral tradition in the Saharawi culture. I have always liked music, and for me it is a powerful way of resistance. I’m able to sing my songs because I was born in a refugee camp. If I was born and raised in Western Sahara occupied territories I would have been banned from singing these kinds of songs for sure!

Aziza sings in her native language Hassaniya. It seems important that she can still communicate in a meaningful way with those trapped and in exile.

To play this new repertoire at camps would be a great experience. All my music is dedicated to the people who want to listen to it, but especially to my people at Abbar el Hamada after forty years of occupation, exile and diaspora. I think people can’t listen freely to my music in the Western Sahara occupied territories, and I also accept there are Saharawis who don’t like my music. But there are a lot of other people who do like my music because, of course, the issue of displacement affects specific peoples as a consequence of their historic or economic destiny. I think at present more people can identify with refugees because, as we can see on the news, nobody is safe from becoming a migrant or a refugee. If there is still someone who thinks he will never have these kinds of troubles it is because he doesn’t have a minimum feeling of empathy.

We wondered if Aziza feels there is anything she can say to displaced people that will help them understand their situation?

No. It’s a very difficult and complex situation and I can’t help to understand it, partly because I continue suffering its consequences. My country’s history can prove that these kinds of problems can get worse or extend themselves. But the hope must go on.

We asked Aziza how she feels about her own children’s musical identity in comparison with her own, now that she is based in Europe.

I don’t aim to keep the purity of my music, only its continuation. Every tree has its roots, and these roots have their memory. I am just happy to see my children growing up in a better environment than I was raised. Every day I wish a better world for them.

So, moving on to her most recent release, the album Abbar el Hamada. We wanted to find out a bit about the producer and fantastic supporting musicians involved in the project who really bring something wonderful to the songs. We asked how she came to work with them.

I was very lucky to work with such wonderful musicians, you’re right! Besides that, they’re very professional. Every one contributed their skills and knowledge to build the many features of each song. I was very fortunate to find them. When I first arrived in Barcelona I spent a little time searching for musicians that could be part of my band, and it’s true to say that I found them very soon after I first listened to their music. Certainly each one of them is an authentic connoisseur of their country’s traditional music.

The musicians she found range from Malian guitarist Samba Touré and Senegalese percussionist Sengane Ngom to Spanish guitarist Ignasi Cussó. Certainly there is a strong West African feel to the music, and her producer Chris Eckman has worked with several African artists. We wondered how it was to collaborate with him, and what he added to the music production-wise.

To work with Chris Eckman as a producer is fantastic. He allowed to me to work with total freedom to build the songs. We had continuous communication about the meaning of every song, so that was the start of the album’s sound. He had clear ideas that he suggested in a rigorous but flexible way. The ambience of the recording days was very special. All the musicians had worked a lot on each song. We arrived early in the studio and left very late, but we were satisfied with the power of what we achieved in those days.

So, after three full albums and an EP we asked what direction her music will take now, and her plans for the future. She teasingly replies:

I don’t know – electronic rock and roll! Yes, for sure I’m planning a new album, but it is top secret! But seriously yes, there are a lot of ideas for new projects, but I can’t reveal anything just yet. For the moment I’m focusing on touring this album and will be in the UK soon at the Albert Hall [26th of April] and WOMAD festival later in the year [29th of July].

So if you would like to experience the pain and pleasure of Aziza Brahim’s Saharawi storytelling we can highly recommend her latest album, or you can get a live taste of this musician in exile at one of her UK shows.

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