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Western Saharan Harshness: Listening To Sahrawi Music With New Ears
Eddy Frankel , April 13th, 2012 07:49

Eddy Frankel looks at the reasons why Sahrawi music remains unexplored territory for most westerners

Sahrawi Music isn't easy on Western ears. The microtonality of the melodies is unfamiliar, the rhythms are complicated and repetitive, the instrumentation is harsh, and the wailing vocal lines are relentlessly fierce. The songs themselves are intangible and slippery, there are no verses or choruses, no easy to define structure for us to cling on to and absorb. In terms of its sonic construction, it's almost as if Sahrawi Music was never really intended for our safe and delicate Western sensibilities.

Which probably explains why it's so overwhelmingly fascinating. It's unique in the “World Music” universe for remaining difficult to commercialise. The bulk of the African music that labels bring over to Europe and America is safe, sometimes even westernised, and usually face-meltingly dull. But few Mauritanian or Western Saharan musicians have made an impact in Europe and America, only Dimi Mint Abba and Mariem Hassan have ever really been embraced by the WOMAD crowd, and even their success wasn't massive. Recent years, however, have seen an emergence in interest in Sahrawi guitar music – an interest fostered almost exclusively by the Sublime Frequencies record label and their Sahrawi bands – Group Doueh and Group Inerane.

Sublime Frequencies have been responsible for presenting Sahrawi music in its purest form for the first time. Doueh and Inerane's releases are raw, vital, lo-fidelity documents of music that is truly a product of its environment. “I think the rawness factor with both bands means they will never be commercial products,” says Hisham Mayet, who runs Sublime Frequencies along with Alan Bishop, and is responsible for the Saharan contingent of the label. This rawness draws Doueh and Inerane – maybe even Sahrawi music as a whole – closer to currents in the underground of Western music than the mainstream. “Both bands have been embraced by the DIY underground and given a relevance that would never happen with the 'World Music' machine and its lack of aesthetics,” says Mayet. World Music strives to make difficult music palatable, and, most importantly, commercially viable. With Sahrawi music, the irony is that by removing artists from their environment and recording them in Western studios with Western producers, the sense of place that is the very essence of the music is almost always lost.

Dimi Mint Abba was a Mauritanian singer who died after an on-stage accident in Morocco in June 2011. She was a huge star across the Arab world and gained popularity with the WOMAD crowd thanks to producer and founder of World Circuit Records, Nick Gold. Her recorded output was minimal, with her main release – Moorish Music From Mauritania – coming thanks to World Circuit, who brought her over to record at London's Livingstone Recording Studios with her husband, Khalifa Ould Eide. The album is powerful, hypnotic and steeped in tradition. But something about it feels almost a little off, as if you're looking at a photograph through someone else's eyes. The following is the track Ishteeb Lagatri off her World Circuit album, her singing comes in after about 3 minutes:

Compare that to this recording of her performing live for Mauritianian national TV:

The live TV appearance is undeniably harder to listen to than the World Circuit release, but not only because of the actual quality of the audio. The instrumentation is distinctly fiercer, the microtonalities of the keyboard and 15 notes-per-octave guitar are more obvious, and the performance is way harsher. This isn't some tucked-away experimental B-Side, this is live on Mauritanian national TV – this is what the music was intended to be. This is – quite simply - how Dimi's music sounded. It's not a one off either, the internet is filled with videos of her on Mauritanian and Moroccan TV sounding just like this. Similarly, Group Bombino came to international attention as the second volume of Sublime Frequencies' Guitars From Agadez series, but have since gone on to record for another label. Hisham Mayet argues that his label's release “is legendary for the incendiary performance. When [Bombino's] new label brought him to the studio, all of the hunger, sand and heat were sanitised for a commercial sound”. With Sublime Frequencies, there's a sense of record producer/label acting as documentarian – a concept that has helped their releases come to popular attention amongst listeners that may never have otherwise explored non-Western music.

The idea that the essence of music is harmed when it is removed from its origins also applies to Western music. Music is often tied to its environment. Grime lost its vitality and purpose when it was polished and removed from the bedrooms of East and South London kids; and how many punk bands' demos are better than the albums they made for bigger labels? It's not necessarily a criticism – grime didn't get worse, it just became something different – music just changes when it's removed from its environment, and the world music industry often strives to uproot non-Western music and make it palatable. But sometimes, music from places like Mauritania and Western Sahara is just harsh; Dimi Mint Abba was the most popular artist in Mauritanian history, she was the mainstream.

That's part of what's incredible about Sahrawi music; Doueh, Inerane, Bombino and Dimi Mint Abba are just the tip of a very big Saharan iceberg. Scouring the internet for Sahrawi artists, you begin to get the sense that there is a huge amount of incredible music coming out of that vast chunk of the desert. Hisham Mayet says: “There is amazing music all over the area and countless bands.” Al Marjan are just one of those bands. With dreamy synth textures along with the usual guitar, drums and vocals, Al Marjan also have something of the poppier influences that have helped to make Group Doueh such a success.

Nojoum Assa come across as a little more traditional sounding than Al Marjan, but with a similar instrumental set up. These videos are proof of the incredible wealth of music the region has to offer. Even cursory internet searches yield a huge amount of bands just as good as these.

At the root of Western Saharan music, and its culture in general, lies a struggle. Not simply a struggle for independence, but a struggle for recognition as an actual country and an independent people. With the withdrawal of Spain as the region's colonial power in the mid-1970s, responsibility for the territory was split between its neighbours to the north and south; Mauritania and Morocco. A rebel group called the Polisario Front emerged seeking national liberation and the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and had pushed the Mauritanians into retreat by 1979 – but the Moroccans maintained control of the territory and to this day are responsible for all major cities and natural resources. The Polisario fought violently against what was seen as an unjust occupation until a UN-backed ceasefire took hold in 1991, they have since renounced all violence but continue to struggle for self-determination. Western Sahara is currently one of the biggest disputed territories in the world and is considered a non-self-governing territory by the U.N.

Clearly, this impacts on the culture of the region. Mariem Hassan has a song called La Intifada (“the uprising” - a term used by Arab peoples for struggles against occupation, mainly associated with Palestine but also used for the Polisario's Saharan fight), and Youtube videos of Sahrawi music are filled with Free Sahara and Sahara Libre comments. The comments sections of many Group Doueh videos tagged with Western Sahara on Youtube have erupted into debate about whether or not the music is Moroccan or Sahrawi. The arguments may seem petty and needless to Westerners, but they lie at the root of the music that comes from the region, regardless of what side of the debate the musicians are on. Struggle and dispute lie at the heart of Sahrawi music, something which goes far deeper than microtonal guitars and synthesizer presets.

All of which serves to make videos of the music being played in the context of its physical landscape so much more mesmerising. The following are a handful of clips of performances in the desert of Western Sahara. Music played with no thought of Western commerce or polish and no urge to bow to foreign sensibilities. This is music borne of struggle, and it's fucking amazing.

To find more similar music, search Youtube for Sahrawi, Hassani and Polisario music. It also sometimes helps to change the spelling of music to musique or musica. Also check out the music section of