Aziza Brahim by Guillem Moreno TWO

Interview: Q&A with Aziza Brahim – “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally” Through Music (February 2024)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Guillem Moreno

Aziza Brahim‘s Mawja, recently brought to us by Glitterbeat Records, is a vibrant fusion of her robust Sahrawi roots and the dynamic energy of Barcelona, where she now resides. The album’s title, translating to ‘Wave’ in Hassaniya Arabic, hints at the fluidity and movement inherent in Brahim’s life and music, shaped by her early years spent in the Sahrawi refugee camps with only a radio to connect her to the wider world of sound.

Despite navigating through personal adversities and the ongoing Western Sahara conflict, Aziza’s artistry rises above these challenges, embodying themes of endurance, self-identity, and the universal human experience.

Recently, we had the opportunity to engage with her in a Q&A interview, where she shared insights into the creative process behind “Mawja,” her approach to collaboration, and the profound influence of her Sahrawi heritage on her music.

Your journey through music is clearly deeply intertwined with your personal experiences and the plight of the Sahrawi people. How does your latest album, Mawja, navigate between expressing your own narrative and conveying a more universal message about displacement and struggle?

I think the old motto “think locally and act globally” has artistic meaning for me. The songs of Mawja have that double interpretation; on one hand, they emerge from my individuality and on the other, they can be understood in a universal context.

Can you guide us through the story of your new album? How and when did the songs come about, and how did the recording and production processes unfold?

Of course. The songs came about as a defence mechanism after an anxiety crisis that I suffered for various reasons during a particularly difficult phase of my life. When I had ten songs, I went to Guillem Aguilar‘s studio. We recorded a demo and began discussing ideas. Once everything was clear, we contacted the rest of the musicians and headed to the studio to record. This was during the summer of 2023, in August.

Mawja also returns to the roots of your debut album, boasting a vibrant range of Saharan and Iberian percussions. How do these elements contribute to the storytelling and emotions conveyed in your music?

The contribution of these elements to the storytelling and the emotions my music conveys is crucial. My intention in blending traditional percussive instruments from various backgrounds is to forge an entirely new sound. On this record, I’ve introduced some instruments I hadn’t worked with before, perhaps because they speak to emotions I hadn’t previously expressed. All of this contributes to the unique sound of Mawja.

In Mawja, you collaborated once again with Guillem Aguilar as co-producer. Can you discuss the dynamics of your collaboration and how it influenced the album’s overall sound and direction?

This is the first time he has cooperated as a co-producer with me. He is the bass player in my band and has always been involved in my work, contributing to demos and arrangements on my previous albums. When I started working on Mawja, I wanted to share the production with him because we have been friends for a long time, and he is a musician with exquisite taste and deep knowledge of popular music. I took his suggestions on board; we worked together on the arrangements. We spent a lot of time working closely together, both theoretically and practically, before we got to the studio. The intensity ramped up once we were in the studio, but thankfully we had prepared thoroughly beforehand.

The album’s title, Mawja, meaning “Wave” in Hassaniya Arabic, suggests a sense of movement and fluidity. How does this concept of “Wave” manifest throughout the album, both musically and thematically?

Movement and fluidity manifest themselves in various forms throughout the album. Starting with the album’s cover and then permeating the music and lyrics. I don’t wish to give away all the interpretations of the album title in this interview because I believe in the audience’s ability to discover the different meanings within the songs themselves. As a hint, I would say: pay attention to the rhythms and how they relate to the themes of time and memory.

Reflecting on your musical journey from Soutak to Mawja, how do you feel your sound and artistic identity have evolved? Are there any themes or musical explorations you’re particularly keen to pursue in your future work?

As an artist, my evolution is evident. I now have a firmer grasp of what I want and a clearer vision of how each song should sound. In this sense, I have solidified my artistic identity. My sound has evolved as well. Within the confines of “Desert Blues,” there’s still room for exploration. Hopefully, we’ll see some of that in the future.

“Duaa” and “Ljaima Likbira” are described as “tender elegies” for your grandmother. In your interviews, you’ve often mentioned that your grandmother was a significant influence on your music and activism. How did her legacy inspire those particular tracks, and how did you translate your emotions into the music?

Her way of composing verses has always inspired me. Thus, she is present in these new songs, both in “Duaa,” the prayer I dedicated to her eternal memory, and in “Ljaima Likbira,” the song I composed in honour of my grandparents’ tent. Translating my emotions into the music was a very authentic process. With my guitar in hand, I began to improvise the music then and there. On that foundation, I crafted the melody, and atop the melody, I laid down lyrics that flowed straight from my heart.

As mentioned, your music carries a strong message of hope and resistance, particularly in the context of the Sahrawi struggle. How do you balance the personal and political in your songwriting, ensuring that your music remains accessible to a global audience while staying true to your roots and messages?

It’s a fascinating question, and I don’t know if I have the definitive answer, but as I mentioned at the start, the local is global, the personal is political, especially for Sahrawis and those in precarious political situations. Authenticity is also crucial in connecting with others. I believe this authenticity is the foundation of the balance between appealing to a global audience and remaining faithful to my roots. However, it’s worth noting that my audience is still not in the majority; I remain an artist with a niche following. Now’s a great opportunity to start following me!

“Bubisher” delves into Sahrawi literature and mythology. Could you tell us more about the significance of the song and how do you see the role of folklore and traditional narratives in contemporary music, especially in the context of preserving and promoting cultural heritage?

Absolutely. In Sahrawi culture, the Bubisher is a small bird whose appearance is believed to bring good news and luck. In the refugee camps, there’s a project named after this bird, involving a network of stationary and mobile libraries that promote reading among the refugee population. Bachir Ali, one of the greatest living Sahrawi poets, wrote the lyrics and sent them to me. I was so taken by them that I composed the music for his poem. As for the role of folklore and traditional narratives in preserving and promoting cultural heritage, it’s clear we need to protect and cherish this heritage, engage with it, and place it in dialogue with other cultures to prevent its disappearance.

“Haiyu Ya Zawar” is described as a popular Sahrawi song of resistance. How does this track reflect the ongoing struggle for the Sahrawi people?

Precisely. I composed a new melody for these lyrics because they remain relevant, as if they were written today, given the ongoing Sahrawi struggle for justice and self-determination. This is a struggle for the rights of an entire people.

Did you also take the photographs for the Mawja album booklet, as you did with Sahari? How do the visuals tie into the album’s themes?

No, that was only for the previous album Sahari (2019). For Mawja, I collaborated with the remarkable photographer Ernest Vilches. His images complement the songs on Mawja by contextualising and situating them.

What music and musicians are you listening to at the moment? Is there any artist or band that particularly influenced you when you were writing the songs on Mawja?

Recently, I’ve been exploring artists on Glitterbeat Records to see what my label mates are up to. Following that, I delved into jazz music and revisited albums by some of my favourite Arabic singers, primarily Dimi Mint Abba and Um Kelzum. However, for this album, I also listened to The Clash, a band I discovered quite late but whose discography I deeply admire and love.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, few Sahrawi musicians gain exposure to international audiences. Could you please suggest some names for us to explore and learn more about Sahrawi music?

If you’re interested in discovering more Sahrawi music, I would recommend to Rhythm Passport readers the great singer, poet, and guitarist Nayim Alal, who is a master of El Haul’s scales. I would also suggest Mariem Hassan. For something a bit different, leaning towards pop and soul, I recommend the Spanish-Sahrawi singer Suilma Aali.

After your new album is released in two weeks, what’s next on your agenda?

I plan to tour and present this album in all the places that invite me: venues, festivals, theatres, and so on.

We usually close our interview with a canonical and tricky question. How would you introduce your music to someone who has never listened to it before?

It’s a challenging task because I’m not fond of labelling my music, but broadly speaking, I would describe it as a fusion of roots music within the realm of desert blues.



Aziza Brahim's latest album, Mawja, is now available through Glitterbeat Records.
Stream it or grab your copy HERE




Photo ©: Guillem Moreno