Aziza Brahim ‘Abbar el Hamada’
Released by Glitterbeat Records, 4th March 2016
Once again bringing the message of the displaced Saharawi people to the world stage, Western Saharan musician/activist Aziza Brahim follows up her critically rewarded 2014 album Soutak with another serene protest of poetic defiance, Abbar el Hamada.
Translated into English as “across the Hamada”, the album’s title refers to the rocky desert landscape that runs along the Algerian and Western Saharan frontier. Purgatory for those stranded in this inhospitable limbo, it is home to the decades-old refugee camps where Brahim was brought up. Forced off their lands by a Moroccan invasion in 1975, the Saharawi (a mixed etymology and culture of tribes, their collective name loosely translates from the Arabic as “someone from the desert”) were, and still are, condemned to live in a hostile environment. A diaspora that is ongoing after forty-years, despite continuous protests, and initially a fight back, the desert people’s plight is made even more profound in light of the Syrian refugee crisis.
A perfect songstress embodiment of the struggle, Brahim’s restless soul has found some solace abroad. Listlessly adrift of her homeland, raised in the camps, she found a passage to Cuba before settling in Barcelona. Carrying the musical traditions of the Western Sahara with her and absorbing the Latin/Mediterranean sounds and styles of the places she’s been forced to travel through, Brahim denounces, in the most lyrically beguiling fashion, the situation in not only Africa but Europe. A strong suffused theme of building “walls” as opposed to bridges permeates through the lyrics and is reflected in the song titles, whether they’re metaphorical ones or real, such as Morocco’s sand fortifications, built to prevent the Saharawi from returning to their lands.
Still in the mix, mostly heard in the nimbly played acoustic guitar gestures and meditations, Brahim’s Barcelona influences are downplayed on this album: An unfortunate reminder perhaps with the seas and coastlines that have witnessed such suffering, those Mediterranean sounds waft from a now unwelcoming sanctuary. But it is the sound of a both ancestral and contemporary West Africa that dominates. Part of the Glitterbeat Record’s quality roll call of talent from the continent, and once again produced by the label’s founder and driving force Chris Eckman, there’s a rich mix of musical exchanges from the region. Sengane Ngom and Alex Tobias make appearances alongside, on the camel procession desert ballad ‘Mani’, Mali’s blues legend Samba Touré. Recalled from the last recording sessions, for Soutak, bassist and arranger Guillem Aguilar and guitarists Ignasi Cussó and Kalilou Sangare also return to the fold.
Reflecting the stateless ambiguity of her people and the growing tensions of fortress Europe, the fusion of styles remains beautifully articulate with Brahim’s vocals amorphously shifting, tumbling and flowing like the desert winds in a dusky twilight atmosphere. Traditional Asarbat and Sharaa rhythms smoothly entwine with Afro-Cuba shuffles and Tuareg desert rock to produce a lightly played intricate bedrock for Brahim’s distinctive resonate voice. A confident, impassioned but controlled follow-up to Soutak (which spent three weeks at the top of the World Music Europe charts), there’s a broader soundscape and depth on Abbar el Hamada.
In the face of a forty-year diaspora, overshadowed by countless other tragedies, Brahim’s protestations remain evocative. Abbar el Hamada articulates its message with a soulful dignity that reverberates deeper and further than any angry shout ever could.
Words: Dominic Valvona