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.
In February 1976 the Spanish finally withdrew from Western Sahara, but instead of allowing the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) they sold the territory to the Moroccans and Mauriatians. A 15-year war ensued between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. The fighting was brutal, with the Moroccans using their well-equipped army and air force to full effect, while the Saharawis conducted an effective counter insurgency. Mariem, along with tens of thousands of other Saharawis, was forced to flee on foot across the desert to the safety of refugee camps in Algeria. Thirty-four years later 165,000 of them are still living in these camps.
Mariem’s life, both personally and politically has been shaped by her country’s tragic recent history. Three of her brothers were killed in the war and her moving song “Chouhada” (Martyrs) recalls their sacrifice. Although the war ended in 1991 and, under the terms of a UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised, this referendum has been repeatedly blocked by the Moroccans. Despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice and over 100 UN resolutions, King Mohammed VI of Morocco has steadfastly refused to give up “one inch of our beloved Sahara: not a grain of its sand.”
An internationally renowned performer, Mariem still lives among her people in the refugee camps. Although she has come a long way since her early days singing with just a drum, her music has not strayed too far from its roots. Her sound is steeped in the Saharawi/Hassania traditions fusing the traditional rhythmic haul with blues and rock. She is accompanied by the tebal, a drum made from wood and goatskin and the electric tidinit, a wooden four-stringed guitar. Her earthy rippling rhythms start slowly and intensify, lifting the spirit. She finished her set at WOMAD with “L’Intifada,” a powerful freedom song about one of the world’s longest-running and least remembered conflicts. “My greatest dream is to return to Smara,” she says. “Whether living in houses or tents. All I want is to go back to our land, for which we have spilled so much blood.”
To learn more about Western Sahara click here.