Committed to the independence of her country, Western Sahara, the singer embodies both the tragedy and the hopes of many refugees in the world.
She wears the veil, has a Jimi Hendrix song as a ringtone on her mobile, likes people to use the familiar "tu" to address her, and plays the tabal, a Western Sahrawi percussion instrument reserved for women. Grand-daughter of the renowned Sahrawi poet Ljadra Mint Mabrouk, the author-songwriter Aziza Brahim follows in the footsteps of her grandmother, breaking clichés as she goes. Considered the most important singer of her country, she is also a fervent advocate for it. Her battle taking place on the stage, in the realm of words and emotions, the artist denounces in her clear and powerful voice the violence and torture suffered by the people of Western Sahara, and by all the refugees of the world. Lulled by tender melodies that recall Malian and Gypsy blues and complemented by exceptional musicians, the words of Aziza Brahim are a fist raised in a velvet glove that lets no-one off the hook. The musician was in Geneva last month for a unique concert at the AMR in front of a room full to the brim with people and emotion. A meeting.
For Aziza Brahim, music was at first a refuge, a way of surviving in refugee camps, a means of transmuting the pain she was suffering. "The women sang all the time in my family, especially on Friday for spiritual songs. I tapped my hands, and that's how I learned to play tabal. When I was six or seven, my grandmother started to take me to her poetry recitals. We did not have toys, so music became a game," she says. Born in 1976 and raised with nine siblings in an Algerian camp where her mother, fleeing the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara a year before, had settled, Aziza Brahim has experienced exile several times. Who better than this woman to sing the sufferings and aspirations of the Sahrawi people, and all displaced people?
From the dunes to the Caribbean
Then aged 11, Aziza Brahim received a scholarship to study in Cuba, as did many Sahrawi and African students at the time. She remembers fondly: "Cuba has helped many African peoples in their struggle. The country was a key part of the Sahrawi struggle, enabling many of our young people to gain school education and professional training. Many Cuban doctors also came to treat us in the camps." For the singer, Cuba is a second home. "I've spent more time there than in my own country... where I've never set foot! It was not always easy in Cuba, because I lived there in the middle of the 'special period' (the economic crisis of the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ed.), but the Cuban people warmly welcomed us. And we supported their revolution," says the activist.
Music as a combat tool
In Cuba, the young student played and sang in school groups. She dreamt of studying music at an academic level, but this request was rejected by her Sahrawi tutors. "They refused, because they wanted to direct us towards 'more serious' training, which could affect our people when the Sahrawi State was to become organised after independence." She was incredibly disappointed. Though she understood the reasons given by her tutors, Aziza Brahim preferred to interrupt her Cuban curriculum rather than renounce her passion.
Rebellious, she returned to the refugee camps in 1995, where she began to compose her own themes and become known little by little before moving to Spain in 2000. "For me, music is the most powerful influence. It thrills me, it's a condition for the struggle. It's the most direct and effective means of communicating pain, struggles and hopes. It also allows me to heal my scars, by transcending them and by transmitting my experience in the refugee camps, which are currently being experienced by so many people in the world right now... My music speaks of all this," she says. Her latest album, Abbar el Hamada ("Through the Hamada", a term describing the Algerian desert plateau where the Sahrawi refugees survive), is a vibrant call to "destroy the walls separating peoples", especially the sand fortifications erected by the Moroccan authorities on the borders of Western Sahara to prevent the exiled Sahrawis from returning to their land.
When asked about her influences, Aziza Brahim speaks of African and Arabic music first. She recalls Ali Farka Touré, "in my opinion, the greatest African artist," Salif Keita, Rokia Traoré, Miriam Makeba, but also Los Van Van (Cuba), Jimi Hendrix's rock music, Queen, Pink Floyd and the US blues, thinking of Big Mama Thornton. Her work reflects this eclecticism, with the desert echoes of the song "Calles de Dajla" ( Streets of Dakhla), and Afro-Cuban accents with "La Cordillera negra" (The black mountain range), two tracks from her latest album.
Compared by some to Billie Holiday, the artist does not hide her political views. "Much of my music is meant to give visibility to the claims of my people, who actually think of me as being a bit like an ambassador. I think of it as a duty, but also as an opportunity and a blessing." An ambassador of her people, Aziza Brahim is especially so of Sahrawi women, who occupy an important place in her work.
"Our society is matriarchal, it's the women who wear the trousers. When I was a child, there were no men in the camps. They were all at the front, fighting the Moroccan troops. Women did everything, they organised the camp, took care of supplies, hygiene, medical care, traditions, food, building schools, hospitals... Sahrawi women are a symbol of constant struggle, determination, ability and courage. They are an example for me to follow." A legacy that Aziza Brahim honours perfectly. And as 2016 draws to a close, she sits at the top of the World Music Charts Europe, a ranking based on the playlists of radio stations in 24 European countries.