Mariem Hassan’s voice soared through the warm afternoon air in the Wiltshire countryside at last month’s WOMAD festival. She started with a “mawal”—a graceful song sung without accompaniment before moving on to the mesmeric desert blues for which she is famed. She sings of love, of heartache but most of all she sings about the suffering and hopes of her people in their struggle for independence in Africa’s last colony. “To be Saharawi is to be political,”she said, her eyes sparkling. Known as “the voice of Western Sahara,” Hassan is the embodiment of the axiom that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She has lived through war, cancer and over three decades of exile but her spirit remains strong.
Born in Smara, a desert city built of red Saharan sand and decorative basalt stone, she spent the first 15 years of her life living under Spanish colonial rule. She began songwriting at a young age despite having no musical instruments other than a drum. In the early 1970s as the Western Saharan liberation movement, the Polisario Front, grew her music became more politicised as she sang about the Saharawi’s desire for independence. “One time I had to climb through a window at a meeting where I was singing to escape arrest by the Spanish police,” she recalls.