Aziza Brahim, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

“I live the life of a modern-day nomad” jokes Aziza Brahim reflecting on how she has moved from the deserts of the Sahara, to Cuba and is now based in Spain.

“But I am a Saharawi. Being nomadic is in my blood.” Her music too has something of the nomad about it as it wanders the globe picking-up Latin rhythms, bluesy rock guitar rifts and influences from Africa and Europe. But like Brahim, her music never strays too far from its roots and remains steeped in Saharawi/Hassania traditions fusing traditional rhythms and melodies with other musical genres.

She starts her set standing alone, spotlighted on the large dark stage. Accompanying herself on the t'bal (a large animal skin drum) she sings a Mulana, a gentle religious song, which allows her to give full reign to her rich and resonant voice. She is then joined on stage by five other musicians: three guitars and three drums giving raw accompaniment to Brahim’s soaring vocals.

Brahim was born in exile in a refugee camp in Algeria, her mother having carried her across the border from Western Sahara in her womb as she fled the advance of Moroccan occupying armies in 1976. Like tens of thousands of Saharawi refugees they left behind not only theirs homes but also members of their extended and immediate families. ”I never got the chance to meet my father before he died” says Brahim who’s father remained in Western Sahara. “The pain of this is carved into my spine”. She still has brothers in the so-call ‘occupied zone’ with whom the only contact she has had has been by telephone. This experience of loss, exile and separation is distilled in her music. In one moving song, Hijo de les Nubes (Song of the Clouds), she sings about the 1500 mile fortified barrier that divides Western Sahara. Known as “the Wall” it was built by the Moroccans to keep the Saharawi’s from returning to their native land and it has meant that families have been kept separate for generations.

“The songs I write are based on my own suffering” explains Brahim, “but they are also a reflection of the suffering of my people. Those living in the refugee camps, under occupation or in exile.” La tierra derrama lágrimas (The earth spills heartache) is a goose-bump inducing incantation which builds to an intense ululating climax. Another song speaks of the need for freedom of expression, both political and cultural. Indeed, Brahim has a strong sense of the importance of preserving Saharawi traditions. “Although we may all be the same under the skin, without different cultures our world would be a very torpid place.”

Despite the seriousness of her subject matter, Brahim’s music is not at all sombre. Instead, the rippling rhythms and catchy hooks are warm and uplifting. The variety and synthesis of styles (including a solitary Reggae song) is beguiling and although few in audience understand the Hassania lyrics, their power is nevertheless communicated through the music.

Earlier in the day free Western Sahara campaigners outside the concert hall had organised a pantomime camel race along the South Bank and distributed free glasses of sweet Saharawi tea to passers-by. Brahim is heartened by activities such as this and by the fact that people around the world are concerned her people’s forgotten struggle. “We didn’t deserve such injustice but I still have faith and I still have hope” she says. Greatest among Aziza Brahim’s hopes is to set foot in her homeland for the first time.

Find out more about the situation in Western Sahara at