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Queen of the Desert Blues
Stop for a moment and focus on the musicianship and stage presence of Aziza Brahim. Her strength, womanhood and harmonic resonance comes from the Western Sahara. Pic: Brunswick Music Festival, Aziza Brahim.
The Brunswick Music Festival, which ran from 5-19th March, delivered diverse musical genres and outstanding performances from songwriters, stellar artists and virtuosic musicians. Once again the festival, now in its 29th season, showcased the best of Australian musical talent and international guests who continue to challenge, fuse and cross musical boundaries. None are more alluring and intriguing than Western Sahara composer, singer and musician Aziza Brahim.
I jumped at the chance of seeing a live performance from Aziza and her extraordinary Latin-Afro band, Gulili Mankoo.
Aziza Brahim is described as a 'sonic poet': her music and words come from the earth that her soul has fully absorbed and she sings to the desert that will forever hold her heart. Her music sounds like a 'living diary', an energy and sound that also characterises Romany and other musical narratives from nomadic cultures. To fully appreciate it, you need to go back to the desert source. In my own mind-scape, as the shifting Sahara sands became the backdrop to the Aziza experience, I was transported. Within the story-telling traditions of the infinite desert-scape, Aziza Brahim and this festival night, became divine.
Aziza was born and raised in the Saharawi refugee camp where she not only experienced hardship and family separation, but also human rights abuses at the hands of Moroccan invading forces. Aziza Brahim's music has the power to not only tell stories, but to transform grief and pain. Let her music tell the story.
This is the Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf where Aziza was born and raised. Aziza Brahim's music has the power to transform grief and pain. Pic: Refugee Camp, The Sahrawi refugees- a forgotten crisis in the Algerian Desert, Flicker, European Commissions DG Echo's photo-stream, Creative Commons
The linguistic lineage of the Western Sahara and Aziza's own life journey has opened her to feel and produce new and different lyrical-musical cadences. This is a key to the breadth and depth of her sonic poetry and song-style. In the Western Sahara, the predominant oral language is Hassaniya. A dialect of Arabic, it gives Aziza's melody an Arabic 'prayer-like' overtone declaring a strong Middle-eastern flavour. Her melodies are almost 'sound-speak', which may account for the rapid, minor and close semi-toned key changes: her sublime vocal skills allow her to produce harmonics across a wide range. She also successfully uses her voice as an instrument, or to create stand-alone sounds.
The landscape of the Western Sahara: let the music take you there, and it all makes sense. Pic: Western Sahara, Ammar Hassan, Flickr, Creative Commons
At the age of 11, Aziza Brahim accepted a scholarship to study in Cuba. There, she spent her teenage years and today, her powerful Afro-Cuban clave rhythms create infectious joy. When she was refused entry to study music at University, she returned to the Tindouf refugee camp and continued her grass-roots musical education. The music of the Western Sahara has earthy, percussive sounds and that which I can only describe as 'tribal improvisatory poetry' which gives the music a strong and spontaneous 'gypsy heartbeat'. Aziza creates an authentic style of musical expressionism.
In 2000, Aziza made Spain her home-base. This Spanish migration has added other musical influences to her own natural body rhythms and musical arsenal, e.g., flamenco 'hits', pulses and syncopated beats. On Thursday night, Aziza's spoken introductions were delivered in Spanish and on Aziza's request, key points were translated by organisers from the Australia Western Sahara Association. Musical cadences influenced by Romance languages smoothed and sealed the deal.
'The independence struggle in Western Sahara mirrors almost exactly that of the East Timorese. In 1975 when the colonial power Spain withdrew, the neighbouring country, Morocco, invaded. A war ensued until a UN sponsored ceasefire was declared in 1991 when a referendum was promised. Despite UN pressure Morocco refuses to agree to a referendum'. Caption credit: Australian Western Sahara Association website. Pic: Western Sahara, Sahrawi Women against the Wall of Shame (2005), Flickr, Creative Commons.
Aziza and Gulili Mankoo initially stretched my 'Westernised musical comfort zone'. I felt that for the evening's first three songs, the volume of the band was too loud which drowned Aziza's vocals. It was an auditory dilemma: even though the balance was mis-aligned, the band were exalted- and they are simply superb. I wanted to video and write a caption promoting the lead guitarist on YouTube: 'practice like crazy and this is how good you can be'. However, all of Gulili's musicians are virtuosos. It was a joy to share their delight: great musicians playing with others of similar ability. It is not surprising that their latest album, Abbar El Hamada, has reached No. 1 in Europe's World Music charts.
Aziza Brahim's music is driven by mission. Even though she sings about struggle, war, family division and personal loss, her music has hope and humility. She has been sponsored by the Australia Western Sahara Association. Pic: Aziza in Adelaide, from AWSA website.
The make-up of the band was new to me: a strong percussive line-up with Aziza herself playing the Tbal and Gulili's Senegalese percussionist who has rhythmic ability and co-ordination beyond belief. He played four types of traditional drums and blazed Afro-jazz-tribal energy: when he let loose, the crowd rose as one. Gulili's third drummer, who played Western-style drums, experimented with sound and timbre and was brilliant in his ability to simply hold it all together. He was gleefully humble in his appreciation of the musical genius of his percussive co-pilots. Songs delivered by this percussive trio were truly 'something special', delivering giddy heights of passion as the crowd connected to their own very human, innate love of rhythm and movement.
Gulili Mankoo has three guitarists- two electric (lead and base) and one acoustic (rhythm guitar with spices of flamenco). All guitarists are outstanding- in fact- it was humbling to be in their presence. I was particularly intrigued by the way they treated their instruments: extracting sounds from the guitar that I hadn't considered possible. Maybe they have 'learned to play' differently – it was as if someone handed them an object and said 'work out what it can do'. Aziza and Gulili Mankoo created dissonance that raised the roof.
Virtuosic dissonance makes 'rules' dictated from 'the well-tempered scale' obsolete. There were unusual and unexpected key changes and Aziza's melody and counter-melody was often 'off-beat'. Such musicianship not only created story-line tension and emotional drama, but showed why this music from the Western Sahara is not really 'a jazz, rock, soul, Latin and African rhythmic fusion', but a voice and genre all of its own. Travellers to Marrakesh would be reminded of the tribal rhythms and choruses from Sahrawian women and Bedouin tribesmen.
Aziza's Melbourne audience left inspired, exalted, educated and united. Aziza and Gulili Mankoo received two standing ovations. Aziza Brahim was a true 'moment' in Melbourne's festival calendar and musical landscape.
Music with a Mission
Aziza dedicates her music, world tours and song-writing to the people of the Western Sahara who have been living in refugee camps for over 41 years. Now a world music ambassador, Aziza raises money to change their living situations and help them to seek recognition from a world that does not fully appreciate the magnificence of nomadic people connected to their land.
Demonstrators showing a Sahrawi flag (Oct 29, 2005). Public exhibition of a Sahrawi flag in the occupied zones of the Western Sahara was punishable by years of imprisonment. Pic and caption: Western Sahara, Flickr, Creative Commons.
Aziza's musical commitment also extends to educating people about all refugees and other persecuted and dispossessed people worldwide. Aziza Brahim and Brunswick Music Festival organisers were respectful and generous in the support shown for communities and cultures ravaged by genocide and human rights abuses, and their support groups who are at the cutting edge of complex and war-affected struggles. Aziza's show at Brunswick Music Festival opened with a word from The Thin Green Line Foundation, an Australian group who raise awareness about poaching, animal cruelty and land-environmental abuses in Africa. There was also an acknowledgement of the devoted work of the Australia Western Sahara Association who have sponsored Aziza's current tour of Australia and New Zealand (Adelaide, WOMAD, Brunswick Music Festival and Plymouth, New Zealand, for WOMAD 2017).
Brunswick Music Festival- Now in its 29th Year
The Brunswick Music Festival has brought together both international and Australian artists of the highest calibre to create a world-class event. Brunswick Music Festival has become a jewel in the 'Melbourne Festival Crown' with something for everyone. Pic: Brunswick Music Festival
The Brunswick Music Festival has continued to bring together both international and Australian artists of the highest calibre who make this festival a world-class event. It should not be regarded as 'another local' or 'sub-culture festival': today, it is a jewel in the 'Melbourne Festival Crown' that can be enjoyed by all. The program is varied, inclusive and brilliant. The Brunswick Music Festival closed with another 'Music for the People Party' at The Shore Reserve, Pascoe Vale South, a perfect metaphor for the power that music has to unite people the world-over and to bring home the festival's vision to make music 'for the people'.
The Brunswick Music Festival opened and closed with a 'Music for the People Party'. On the opening night, Sydney Rd was the place-to-be, and on Sunday March 19th the festival finale stretched its border to Pascoe Vale South. Pic: Brunswick Music Festival