Aziza Brahim’s life has followed a less familiar path than most, taking her from her West African Sahrawi roots over the Atlantic to Cuba and back, before eventually placing her in Barcelona where she currently lives. Her story is inextricably linked to the history and politics surrounding the disputed territory of Western Sahara and the ensuing social displacement and geographical resettlement she has experienced (inevitably) strongly informs her music.
Yet, for all the difficulties addressed on Soutak, musically it is defined by an effortless, near-pacific glide partly attributable to the deftly effective instrumentation but primarily to her exquisite voice. Brahim’s vocal delivery is perfectly judged throughout, never being in any danger of over exertion or conveying undue or excessive passion. It is nowhere better seen than on Gdeim Izik which gets the album underway in quietly sizzling fashion. It suggests that despite the global dimension to her lifestyle it is the music of West Africa that firmly remains her starting point. The sweetly dexterous guitar playing is suggestive of Tinariwen and the vocal trills that follow later on recall Tamikrest (whose second album Chatma was also released on Glitterbeat last year). The fact that, lyrically it concerns some of the more violent episodes of the 1970s Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara makes it all the more remarkable an opener.
It also offers swift proof that while Mabruk, her 2011 album, established the core components of her music, Soutak refines and consolidates them, resulting in a stronger album overall. Second track Julud furthers the political dimension of the album but, as shown by its dedication to Brahim’s mother, has a more personal feel to it.
Tracks like Espejismos and Aradana may be slower but in their own way are equally alluring (the latter sees Brahim impart her vocals over nothing but bare percussion). It is followed by the sunshine-infused Soutak, made to sound even warmer here by being placed straight after the stripped-back spiritualism of Aradana. Importantly, the title track is one of several songs on the album that as well as their personal or political message also boast memorable tunes. This short sequence of tracks demonstrates how the album maintains a sensuous, consistent flow, despite the subtle differences in pace and mood.
The flamenco-tinged Manos Enemigas best reflects the Spanish influence gained from her current place of residence, although a sense of vivacious flair is also present to a lesser degree on the gently lulling Lagi earlier in the album. A tangible sense of longing meanwhile rolls through La Palabra and the album closes on a similar note with Ya Watani, another track built on sparse instrumentation and a simple, focused message. It returns the album full circle and brings Brahim back to her origins (the title translates as ‘the birthplace’ in Swahili).
Soutak is a strong musical statement from an artist approaching what may prove to be the peak of her powers. It reflects the sadness and frustration of a people denied but, delivered with such indefatigable intent and rich beauty, also contains seeds of hope and glimmers of optimism that will never be fully extinguished.