“Brahim’s keening take on Afro-blues, is beautiful, bewitching, aquiver with timeless sorrow.” — Mojo
“This is a sound and message that reaches the heart, beyond imposed borders, curfews and barbed wire, with a dream for the end to the struggle.” — The Quietus
Sahrawi singer-songwriter activist Aziza Brahim’s fifth album Mawja (Wave in Hassaniya Arabic) is fashioned from a simple but powerful foundational palette: Saharan and Iberian percussion entwining with stately guitars and warm, enveloping bass.
Co-produced by Brahim with long-time collaborator Guillem Aguilar, the record from her oeuvre that Mawja most sonically resembles is her revered and graceful debut Soutak (2014).
That noted, there is a confident eclecticism found here, an expansive take on her vision that even includes a drum pattern inspired by the Clash.
Brahim’s voice, as always, is a wellspring of deep and resonant emotions. The yearning for homeland. The struggle for freedom. The love for one’s elders. The unfurling of time. Waves of history, waves of sound. Mawja.
Growing up in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, after her family was forced into exile from Western Sahara, singer and songwriter Aziza Brahim spent hours listening to the radio. Mawja, her grandparents would say as they changed stations. Wave. Medium wave, FM. Radio brought the world to her, music from across the globe carried over the airwaves. When she left, first to study in Cuba, then to live in Barcelona, Brahim never forgot the radio and the education it offered. Now the waves carry her again on Mawja, her fourth album for Glitterbeat. It’s coloured by her own travels, her personal diaspora, and the music she heard through the speaker of that transistor radio as a child.
“Music lets you enrich your original sounds with others you learn,” Brahim says. “Mawja reflects everything that involves me.” It reflects what she’s heard around the Iberian Peninsula, especially the rhythms and percussion instruments. “There’s the tambourine, square tambourine, the almirez (pestle and mortar) that you hear in folk music everywhere on the peninsula. But I mixed with other African percussion instruments, and even ones from other continents. There’s a fusion in the root of each song.”
Mawja is a powerful statement, building on all Brahim achieved with her last album, the lauded Sahari (2019), which offered a portrait of her displaced Sahrawi people. But the four years since that release have been difficult ones for her.
“I had a bad anxiety crisis,” she recalls. “Just as I was recovering, Covid and lockdown happened, and we had to stop the tour we had planned. That made my condition worse. I had to fight to keep my equilibrium. Then, as I began to recover, in November 2020, my country, Western Sahara, was back at war against Morocco. It still is.” All of that was more than enough to experience. But life had one other huge blow for her. A year later “my grandmother Ljadra passed away. She was very important to me and that brought a relapse.”
Gradually, though, out of the pain came inspiration and the songs for Mawja, looking back but definitely also looking forward. In with the sorrow and loss, there’s a strong spirit of hope, of exploration and adventure.
Her adventurous side shows most obviously on “Metal, Madera.” It stands out, raw and electric, with sharp, bluesy chords and a fiery attitude. “It has lyrics that needed a very specific rhythm on the drums,” Brahim explains. “It’s very rooted in the blues, but with an inclination towards punk – desert punk! To get the feel, I made the drummer listen to some of my favourite Clash songs before we recorded.”
The members of her band are an important ingredient in Brahim’s sound. They’ve worked together for years, a tight group that can listen and respond to each other. They’ve built up a trust. But the most important person is undoubtedly bassist and guitarist Guillem Aguilar. He is, she says, a “specialist in folk music, roots music, with a great ear and a refined judgement. In relation to music, we understand the other perfectly.”
A sign of that understanding in that he’s her co-producer on Mawja. Having control of the music and the sound in her head is vitally important to her, Brahim says. During recording “I am open to dialogue, and if it works, I integrate it. But I like to enforce my opinion and working on production lets me do this.”
Mawja is an album that shifts across moods, from the loud rattle of “Metal, Madera” through her reimagination of “Marhabna 2.1,” a song that appeared on her debut, to “Duaa” and “Ljaima Likbira,” Brahim’s tender, loving elegies for her grandmother.
“She was a very important poet of the Sahrawi revolution and culture,” Brahim says. “People like her are immortal and her legacy will live forever on the memory of many people. “Duaa” is a prayer to honour her memory. My grandparents’ home was called “the big haima,” where she was the great matriarch. It’s where I was born and raised. Where we were able to learn to be proud, tenacious, to become activists. First in El Aaiun, then in refugee camps and today in Bucraa in Algeria. Life never have been easy for the Sahrawi.”
But there’s an escape from pain into magic and myth that she follows on “Bubisher,” about a legendary bird of Sahrawi literature. “In popular belief, the bubisher is a lucky bird because it brings good news, its sighting is a sign that we will receive good news. Based on that idea, people created a project for those in the refugee camps and it carries the bird’s name.”
The refugees and the camps were Brahim’s childhood. They, and the Sahrawi struggle to reclaim their homeland of Western Sahara from its nearly fifty-year occupation, formed her, and remain a vital part of her identity. “Haiyu Ya Zawar” is a summary of that, she says, “a popular Sahrawi song of resistance and struggle. I wanted to include it because it is very related to my people and the meaning of its lyrics at this time of war is evident.” She made the tune more Spanish and brought in Raúl Rodríguez, an Andalucian guitar player who created the Tres Flamenco, on the Cuban Tres. All three geographical strands of her history come together in the anthem.
It stands like the photographs of the desert, the waves of sand and the refugee camps that feature in the album booklet. Brahim might no longer physically be there, but so much of her heart is wrapped up in those places.
“They’re not only my past, but they are also my present. My mother, one of my daughters, my brothers and sisters continue living there. Fifty years have passed. Anyone who’s lived in this situation knows perfectly that this fact marks you forever.”
Past, present, future. Waves of history, waves of sound. Mawja.