Album Review: Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada (Across el Hamada) [Glitterbeat]

The new album by Barcelona-based singer Aziza Brahim from Western Sahara is a masterpiece in the expression of displacement felt by the thousands of refugees from her homeland, of which she is one. Produced with sparkling clarity by Chris Eckman (who also worked with Bassekou Kouyate and Tamikrest) Abbar el Hamada bursts with Saharawi rhythms, but also infuses Malian guitar and Senegalese percussion styles with the Mediterranean influences of her adopted home.

Crystal-clear guitar riffs and lilting solos tumble effortlessly from the fingers of Kalilou Sangare. Meanwhile, guitarist Ignasi Cussó’s contribution adds a strong Spanish/Cuban feel.  The catchy melodies of ‘Intifada’ and ‘El Wad’ invite you to sing along, evocative of the best from Amadou & Mariam. The sound is accessible, but the lyrics send a serious message. The title track ‘Abba el Hamada’ evokes the inhospitable rocky landscape along the Western Saharan/Algerian border, where thousands are stranded in refugee camps. The lyrics of ‘Los Muros’ with its beautiful lilting guitar tell how “another fleeting star was seen crossing the walls tonight…on the land and the sea the walls keep rising still” – a reference to Morocco’s sand fortifications.

The album has immediate appeal from the outset, and what the voice may lack in tonal variation is amply compensated for in lyrical content and the quality of the band’s performance. Tonal colour is added to the slow sway of El Canto de la Arena with mellow flute, and the combination of Aziza’s voice in unison with the guitar gives a lovely lilting feel on Calles de Dajla. The stand-out track is Mani, a slow blues featuring guest Samba Touré from Mali on guitar. Its haunting melody and sense of space leave you wanting more. The album is about human dignity and social justice, echoing the dialogues taking place through bars and over walls between refugees, emigrants and those lucky enough to live stable lives in their homeland. The back-story adds poignancy to this beautiful collection of songs, but even if you don’t understand the lyrics the outstanding musicianship makes Abbar el Hamada a joy to encounter.