Spotlight: Aziza Brahim

‘Music has always been a form of protection,’ says Aziza Brahim. ‘In my childhood, it was my favourite toy – I spent many hours “playing”. Recently, through difficult times, music has again been a comfort, a place of resistance. For me, music has always been a way to heal.’

Nearly half a century since Spain’s withdrawal from Western Sahara prompted the Moroccan invasion, the status of Brahim’s homeland on the northwest coast of Africa remains unresolved. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) controls around 20 per cent of the land and Morocco occupies the rest. Fighting re-erupted in November 2020, after a 29-year ceasefire. 

Brahim was born in 1976 in a refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, where her mother settled after escaping Morocco’s 1975 invasion. ‘When my mother was forced to flee from Western Sahara, she carried me in her womb,’ she says. Her father, whom she never met, remained in the Moroccan-occupied city of El Aaiun until his death.

Aged 11, she left on a scholarship to study in Cuba, later moving to Barcelona, Spain, where she’s based today. The sadness of a life in exile, a lost homeland and the Sahrawi struggle for independence has permeated her work, including her fifth album, Mawja, which means ‘wave’ in Hassaniya Arabic.

‘“Mawja” was the word my grandparents said when they tuned the old portable radio we had in the house,’ says Brahim. ‘It’s a poetic word that represents a lot of the personal meanings on this album, such as the waves of desert dunes, the waving of flags in the wind, waves of migration, or the soundwaves of music that move people to dance or think.’

Though one song is influenced by the punk rhythms of The Clash, Brahim was keen to explore her musical origins. ‘I’ve tried to come back to my beginnings with acoustic instruments, searching the roots of the music of my country, and fusing them with other musical traditions from West Africa, Iberian, and Mediterranean cultures, without forgetting electric sounds.’

It’s also, she says, ‘an album about memories’, but ‘about the present and the future, too’, with ‘songs about love, sisterhood, social criticism and spirituality’. Brahim’s voice and melodies have often sounded sorrowful. But Mawja in particular saw her turning to music for comfort and restoration. ‘After the launch of my previous album, Sahari, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns arrived,’ she explains. Cancelled gigs brought about anxiety, and with that ‘insomnia, muscle spasms and an accelerated heart rate’.

‘The situation of my people and my own personal situation during the composition of these songs wasn’t very happy. But all these songs helped me to move forward’

She continues: ‘All of this sank me into a deep sadness. Also, my home country’s situation got worse bit by bit due to changes in the international situation.’ In 2020, the US became the first country in the world to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, under then-president Donald Trump.

She also experienced a profound personal loss. ‘My grandmother, Ljadra Mint Mabruk, passed away without having fulfilled her dream of seeing a free Western Sahara. That made me have a nervous breakdown. The situation of my people and my own personal situation during the composition of these songs wasn’t very happy. But all these songs helped me to move forward.’

Brahim describes her grandmother as ‘a great Sahrawi poet’, who ‘composed and recited her poems by heart’ from her illiterate childhood in a ‘nomadic, shepherding family [travelling] across Western Sahara’s desert’. She later became known as the ‘Poet of the Rifle’, with her work detailing the Sahrawi army’s victories in its first war against Morocco. ‘She practically worked as a war correspondent. She recited her poems in front of the troops and the civilian population to keep their morale high.’

‘Duaa’ and ‘Ljaima Likbira’, songs from the new album, honour Mabruk’s memory. ‘She transmitted to me her interest in poetry and music, but her values, too: her tenacity, honesty and pride,’ Brahim says.

Another song, ‘Bubisher’, refers to the Sahrawi mythological bird. ‘I want to express the legends I heard in my childhood about the freedom this bird represented,’ she says. ‘There is also a project called Bubisher – a network of fixed and mobile libraries that started in 2008. It’s an initiative to promote reading in the Sahrawi refugee camps, so ignorance doesn’t spread amongst our people.’

Elsewhere, on ‘Haiyu ya zawar’ (‘Cheer, Oh, Revolutionaries’), Brahim exhorts: ‘Let’s join the struggle to defeat the colonialists’. The musician says her people ‘suffer the indifference of the whole world’. Her hope: ‘The world must know that Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa in the 21st century. I would like to see the decolonization of Western Sahara, the return of all Sahrawi refugees to our homeland and the rebirth of our lives in a free country.’

Mawja by Aziza Brahim is out 23 February on Glitterbeat Records. Get updates at azizabrahim.com and Instagram @azizabrahimofficial