Afropean Anthems, Culture, Interview, Narratives, Politics, Protest, Uncategorized

Afro-Blues, Activism and the Bilingual Heart: An Interview with Aziza Brahim

                        All images (except album artwork): Guillem Moreno

Aziza Brahim is arguably the best known contemporary Sahrawi musician. Born to refugee parents from the contested Western Sahara region, Brahim has lived in Algeria, Cuba and currently resides in Spain. This year she releases her fifth studio album, Mawja; 10 years on since making her acclaimed debut. Aziza joins to discuss her musical palate, life in exile, her activist heritage, mental health and having a ‘bilingual heart’.

AP: Your music is described as ‘Afro-Blues’. What draws you to this particular style? What do you think of this label more generally?

AB: I have always been a big fan of artists such as Ali Farka Touré, or Boubacar Traoré. ‘Afro-Blues’ is just a label, but I think there is an African path that can help one discover some of the roots of the blues. 

AP: It’s moving how open you have been about the psychological and emotional difficulties that preceded the recording of your latest album, Mawja; a crisis of anxiety compounded by the arrival of the pandemic, the resurgence of hostilities between Morocco and the Western Sahara and the loss of your grandmother, Ljadra.  What made you decide to be vulnerable in this way? Did you have any reservations?

AB: I have not decided to be vulnerable. I am simply a woman with my strengths and my weaknesses. I decided to be transparent and to talk openly about everything that happened to me. I don’t think that made me more vulnerable.

AP: You describe your grandmother as ‘…a very important poet of the Sahrawi revolution and culture…’. What would you say are some of the aspects of her legacy that have most deeply impacted you, personally and artistically?

AB: She was a real ‘school’ for me. She helped me grow as a person due to her tenacity, her resistance, her conviction and her pride. Regarding artistic things, she passed on to me her love for poetry and music. As a child she took me to her poetry recitals in the neighbourhood or to big events. I really enjoyed when the audience would fall silent listening to her and their applause at the end. 

She had a special talent for poetry and a special way of reciting that caught and dazzled you. She always motivated my creativity, challenging me to put her verses and poems to music. She organised home contests where she and my mother were the jury, and in which I participated with all the children of the family. From this, I developed an ability and desire to adapt some of her poems to different tunes. An example of that is the album Mabruk. I always had her cooperation and support.

AP: You grew up in refugee camps in Algeria and have lived in Cuba and Spain. You sing almost entirely in Hassaniya Arabic. What would you say is/are the language(s) of your heart

AB: My mother tongue is Hassaniya Arabic, but I spent my teenage years speaking Spanish. My heart is bilingual. 

AP: What specific relationship do you have with the language of Western Sahara’s former coloniser, Spanish? What are your thoughts in general about the ‘politics’ of language, particularly in the arts?

AB: I live in Spain and I speak Spanish. I write some songs in that language, also. I feel good speaking Spanish, but I am more comfortable singing in Arabic because it is my first language.

AP: There’s an unapologetically political strain to your music, born out of the Sahrawis’ ongoing struggle for liberation and self-determination. There are some who are wary of art being used as a vehicle for activism (perhaps, in itself, a privileged position). Where do you stand on this

AB: I am not naïve. I know a song cannot change the world or society. But I am aware of art having been used to express social and political critique. I need to sing about my personal circumstances and this in itself is political. My family and I are refugees like the other 100 million + refugees  and displaced people in the world. We have the right to make art and tell our stories too.

AP: What do you think of the discourse around the crisis in the Western Sahara, beyond that of Sahrawi communities? Would you say there has been a shift in regards to  awareness at all?

AB: I would say that it is a silenced and forgotten conflict by the international community. Nowadays, there are too many wars in the world. It seems Africa is just another playground of world geopolitics. Awareness barely exists regarding the Sahrawis’ situation in Western countries. 

AP: Much is made in the western press about your early days living in refugee camps, as if to commend your resilience. Yet the political narrative and policy decisions regarding refugees, especially from the Global South, continues to be based on suspicion, if not outright hostility. What is your lived experience of this dichotomy in your present country of exile, Spain?

AB: It has been a very difficult path for me, as it is for everyone else in this situation. We need more resilience in exile than at home. This fact is something unknown to many who have never migrated. Luckily, I have found many nice people on the way. However, in general I don’t like to talk about this issue because it isn’t pleasant to realise that most people in the world are still racist snobs.  

AP: On a lighter note, you have a close creative relationship with your co-producer, bassist and folk music expert, Guillem Aguilar. What are some fond memories from the recording of Mawja?

AB: We have a lot of fond memories from recording Mawja. The album was made during the summer period when everyone was on holidays, but we were working. That was difficult. The album was recorded in a small studio outside of Barcelona. Every day we needed to catch a metro and a train to get there. We worked hard but we had a lot of fun with the band and guest collaborators.  

AP: Do you have any plans to tour in 2024?

AB: I would like to tour the album all over the world and perform in every venue, theatre or festival that wants to invite us. If everything goes ahead as planned, we will start touring in May.


Forthcoming Aziza Brahim European tour dates:

27.05.2024 – NL – Amsterdam – Concertgebouw

29.05.2024 – BE – Antwerp – De Roma

30.05.2024 – NL – Nijmegen – Doornroosje

Mawja by Aziza Brahimout now

Aziza online

This interview also appears on the I Was Just Thinking…blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *