“On the other hand, our country exists without restrictions – in our words, in our memory, in our freedom of thought, in our freedom of expression, in our culture, in our voices.”
Her country is the Western Sahara, And indeed, within her culture, the term Soutak – chosen as the title of her new album appropriately enough – translates as “your voice”.
It is an intensely personal recording, yet while the focus of Aziza Brahim’s creativity is bound up with her own identity, she embraces universal values and has an international approach – drawing in musicians from Spain (Nico Roca on percussion and Guillem Aguilar on bass), and Mali (Kalilou Sangare on acoustic guitar) – as well as her own sister, Badra Abdallahe who provides backing vocals.
With this sparse accompaniment, there is the space for Brahim’s dignified voice to take centre stage and deliver nine songs that are at once noble, uncompromising and subtly inventive.
The Western Sahara, her homeland (although she lives in exile in the Catalan capital Barcelona in southern Spain) has endured decades of conflict in its post-colonial history.
It is often described as one of Africa’s forgotten struggles. Its antecedents are the 1976 decision by the Spanish colonial authorities to hand over to Morocco and Mauritania what Spain called Rio de Oro or the Spanish Sahara.
As the Spanish pulled out, both Morocco and Mauritania were gifted the territory contiguous to their two borders. Morocco subsequently called the territory its southern province.
The actual inhabitants, who term themselves Sahrawis, formed a liberation movement, the Polisario Front, and mounted a resistance to this move, announcing the formation of Sahara Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
No fewer that 36 countries, mostly African but others too (including Cuba) recognised this declaration and the new state. This was to create a yet to be resolved dispute between the then OAU (now AU) and Morocco, resulting in Morocco walking out of the OAU.
Mauritania recognised the SADR in 1984, but Morocco continued to insist on its sovereignty and has built a series of huge defensive walls and exploited phosphate reserves at Bou Craa.
And just three months ago, Morocco assigned an international joint-venture the license to explore the Cap Boujdour block in what the SADR considers its off-shore waters – a move that infuriated the SADR and has put the whole Western Sahara dispute back in play.
And it is against this background that we can understand much of the underlying sentiments of this recording. It is, Brahim explains, an attempt at expression “in contrast to the voice of my people – silenced, censored and gagged”.
She adds that in making this recording she wanted “to make an approach to the music of Mali which has always fascinated me. This initial intention turned into an urgent need when the occupiers of northern Mali attempted to prohibit any form of musical expression.”
With her inspired decision to work with the Malian guitarist, Kalilou Sangare, she has succeeded in this pan-Saharan objective.
On the song immediately preceding the title track, Soutak, a song entitled ‘Aradana’, Brahim demonstrates her mastery of the tabal, the traditional Saharawi hand drum with which she accompanies her majestic voice in one of the sparsest, yet vivid, of the nine self-penned songs presented here.
This sensational CD deserves the widest possible exposure – as does, it can be argued, the 40-year cause of the Saharawis people.