Soutak, the second album by Sahrawi singer Aziza Brahim has been one of the notable success stories of 2014 so far, albeit in a quieter, under-the-radar sense. It may not have generated the publicity of other albums released so far this year, but it is a collection of lasting, impactful songs that have strong personal, social and political undertones.
It is perhaps the latter that form the primary focus of the album, reflecting the issues surrounding Western Sahara, the disputed territory in the north west of Africa. Brahim was born in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria in the late 1970s, and directly experienced the social upheaval and personal tragedy caused by the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara (due to the ongoing conflict, she was never able to meet her father).
Soutak also showcases Brahim’s sensuous and captivating vocals, suggesting that we may soon have another name to add to the list of African musicians to have made successful inroads into Western musical circles. Yet, she doesn’t deserve to be uniformly grouped with other African artists – her music retains a sense of individuality and self-confidence, arguably born out of her time spent travelling and living in other parts of the world. When younger she studied in Cuba, and she currently lives in Spain.
We caught up with her to talk about her latest album, her approach to making music, her background and contemporary Africa, amongst other subjects.
Can you tell us about the background to Soutak? How did the album come together? Had you worked on the songs for some time?
I had some ideas about the new songs I want compose, some issues that were a concern for me. First, I created the lyrics, after that I made the music. I’ve worked nearly of a year on these songs. After Mabruk, I wanted to establish the tabal as a rich source for the desert blues. I wanted to situate this instrument on the centre of the compositions and I need to express my new tunes with an acoustic set.
Lyrically, the album is inspired by the political and social issues relating to your home country of Western Sahara. How do you find the process of incorporating these into your music?
I have to incorporate these political and social issues in the songs. I can’t look to the side and sing about a disassociated reality. I think the artists have a responsibility. It’s very important to me that my lyrics talked about my surroundings. As the conflict has extended over time I think it’s necessary to give it its prominence from the current news.
For this album you are joined by a different group of musicians to before. How did the band come together? Where was the album recorded?
When I arrived in Barcelona, I searched for musicians interested in roots of music: folk, jazz, latin and blues. I was lucky to find the musicians that recorded this album because they are very versatile, very competent and very professional. Each one have some musical projects, very good ideas and they’ve contributed to embellish Soutak. We recorded this album in a week in June, at El Tostadero a little (but very busy) studio, very close to the Park Güell. We recorded all the songs like a live session. It was exciting to me because I contributed to the album with the rhythm guitar and in some songs the Saharawi hand drum, the tabal. The producer, Chris Eckman was so patient and so gentle with us. He supervised very quietly each one of the recording sessions.
There seems to be a tangible sense of hope running through Soutak. Is this something you consciously tried to project?
The hope can be a trap, but if you haven’t hope you can’t grow, because you fall into pessimism. Me or my people can’t allow that. I want to project this sense of hope as strategy of resistance.
Your previous album Mabruk came with a text on the Sahrawi people. Do you feel it is important to spread understanding and knowledge of Sahrawi history?
The people that forget their beginnings, lose their identity. We all know our history, we are aware what is our situation, and we know what future we want for our descendents. We want to spread it and involve the world in supporting our people.
Are there any ways in which you feel Soutak differs from Mabruk?
Mainly, they differ in the sound. Mabruk had a rockier, electric sound and Soutak has a bluesy acoustic sound. But, in the lyrics too. Mabruk had covers my grandmother, Ljadra Mint Mabruk, poems…Soutak, has basically lyrics of mine. But, both have the same intention: to contribute, to modernise, to update, the Saharawi’s millenary culture.
What are your main memories of your childhood in Western Sahara?
Mainly, I remember the supporting cohabitation with my large family in the jaimas. I remember the hard food scarcity, the harsh climate conditions and the government’s curfew that sometimes ordered emergency alarms caused by the air attack danger, all the people running to the trenches, the fear, the stress… But, I have good memories, too. I remember the calling to the food distribution and the morning calling to the school, all the children went together. By night all the children of the neighbourhood met around a large can to play drums and sing…
What role did music play in your childhood? Was there a particular moment when you realised you wanted to become a musician?
When I was a child, usually my family got together on Fridays to sing El Medeh, traditional religious songs. The music was very important. In my family each one played a percussion instrument or clapped their hands or sang. After that we wanted to continue singing or making music. As my grandmother is a great poet, she translated to me her love of poetry and music. She ever encouraged me to sing because she praised my voice. She gave me her poems to make tunes for. I feel I have to take care of her legacy and to follow her good example.
Did you have any early musical influences? Are there any particular artists or people that inspire you now?
My earlier musical influences were Dimi Mint Abba, Um Kelzum, the blues of Ali Farka Touré. And now they continue inspiring me but I have more musical influences as Salif Keita, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Miriam Makeba… The American blues like BB King, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thorton, Jimi Hendrix.
How do you look back on your time in Cuba as a teenager? Do you think you appreciated at the time what an unusual/significant decision it was to study there?
For me, to study in Cuba in those times was a great luck. First of all, because I went with my sister and my aunt, but after, because it was a special opportunity to study, to learn Spanish, to know a different reality.
Did you have much exposure to the music and culture of the country?
I had a moderate exposure to the Cuban music and culture because at the beginning I was so young and I lived in a boarding school with my compatriots. Although with the passing of time I was got a bigger exposure to its reality and its culture in which I ‘ve learnt a lot. Anyway, I think it was a rewarding experience.
African music seems to be in particularly good health at the moment with bands and artists like Tinariwen, Tamikrest, Rokia Traoré and Amadou & Mariam achieving high levels of success and critical acclaim, particularly in Europe. Do you feel part of a wider musical family in any sense? Does the success of these artists provide direct encouragement for you?
Of course, I celebrate this good health of African music. I think all the musicians, especially popular musicians are a wide family, beyond borders, ethnic groups or religions because we all talk an international idiom.
Is there a musical ‘scene’ as such in Western Sahara? Is music something that young people actively get involved in?
Yes, we have good musicians, good singers and great artists that are references to the Saharawi youth that continues actively playing Saharawi music, because the music is a way of escaping and fighting. Unfortunately, we haven’t a Saharawi musical scene as such, because the country is divided. In the occupied territories the musicians are condemned to the “underground” by the censorship. In the refugee camps, there are poor resources. We haven’t a market, a musical system as in Europe because Western Sahara is an exiled country.
Last year Islamic rebel groups in Mali tried to ban and restrict music. How do people in Western Sahara generally view this situation? It must be of great personal concern to you that things like this can happen?
The music is the power of the people for the Saharawis and in any African country. To ban music is an attack on the people’s freedom of expression. This is unacceptable for the Saharawi and the Malians, too, because they became inhibited in the use of their own culture. It would be a great personal concern to me if a thing like this happened.
How did you come to settle in Barcelona? In what ways do you think that city and culture influences your music? Do you still return to Africa often?
I came to Barcelona because it’s a city that I always liked. Here, I can go to a concert of Salif Keita, Tinariwen, Tiken Jah Fakoly or Chicuelo… in this way I think this cityinfluences my music. On the other hand, the Catalan culture have lots of extraordinary artists. I am in continuous touch with my family in camps. I return to Africa when my work allows it.
In 2011 you worked on the film Wilaya, both in terms of acting and producing the soundtrack. Are these roles you would like to further pursue in the future?
Why not? I enjoyed a lot with this work, above all in the shooting. But, my work is with music. In spite of this, I don’t rule out going back to acting, I would like so much to make more film’s soundtracks.
What plans do you have for the rest of 2014?
The main plan is to do a tour to present Soutak.
Aziza Brahim’s album Soutak is out now through Glitterbeat. More information here.