Mariem Hassan left behind a remarkable legacy of cultural identity for the Sahrawi people when she passed away in August 2015. She died near the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria where she spent over twenty-five years of her life living in exile with her fellow refugees, refusing to accept Morocco’s fractured rule of Western Sahara. During her time in the camps, she worked as a nurse and developed her outstanding voice. Her dedication to exposing the plight of Sahrawis beyond the borders of Africa combined with her exceptional vocal capabilities earned her the nickname, ‘The Voice of the Sahara.’
Her dancer, backing vocalist and percussionist Vadiya Mint El Hanevi, joined Hassan when her group was touring and her original dancer lacked proper documents to travel abroad. Hanevi proved to be an instant success and her grace and exuberance is plain to see during performances. They continued to work together over the years culminating on this final release, Baila Sahara Baila. In addition to their vocals, Hassan and Hanevi tap into the rhythmic pulse of the recording by playing a range of percussive instruments.
This CD features seventeen tracks and focuses on a variety of Sahrawi dances. They are presented as a tribute to the Sahrawi people and musicians who unite together to stand for their own self-determination. Poet Lamin Allal introduces the self-titled opening track. As his passionate words fill the air, the band takes off and maintains flight for the duration of the record. Hassan’s powerful vocals, sung mostly in Hassaniyya, are immediately urgent and striking, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Lamgaifri Brahim, the primary electric guitarist, holds the groove together with frenetic half step hammer-ons and pull-offs, charging the group up with a visceral intensity.
“Terwah” is a song that accompanies the presentation of a wedding bride. Hassan and Brahim’s guitar harmonize together as the song slinks along and builds steam as it reaches its conclusion. “Tfaila” has a hypnotic cyclical rhythm that draws attention to the array of intricacies in Hassan’s gritty voice.
“Bleida” is an instrumental track which features Nayim Alal on guitar. His quick, punctuated bursts ring out on his guitar with a textured mix of treble and distortion. As the song progresses, Alal’s guitar runs wild, demonstrating some profound Sahrawi guitar mastery.
“Aichetu” has a slow, creeping rhythm with strained vocals from Hassan, which sets a somber mood. Brahim’s slippery guitar slides underneath Hassan’s pleading vocals with a repeated response from Hanevi. The laidback “El Juego del Tebal” showcases Hassan’s higher register with exuberant singing.
“Eknu” is a seductive dance that features an enticing start-stop rhythm. Hassan playfully tells listeners to make sure they’re dancing. “Shauda” features Baba Salama’s guitar with a glowing chorus effect. The song builds slowly with hand claps and percussion. Hassan’s voice enters as the song speeds up with a looping groove. She wastes no time and grabs a hold of the song with her powerful vocal delivery.
“Ragsat Naama” is driven by Hassan’s commanding voice. Brahim’s supportive guitar work is buoyed by percussive counts of three. “Danza de Smara” features Salama on acoustic guitar and Mohamed Salem on tidinit. This highly percussive acoustic track has a joyous, upbeat tone.
“Rags el Horr” was recorded live in Oviedo in 2013. The intensity of the setting comes across ten fold and the audience participation draws out and a wildly electric performance. Lamin Allal rejoins the group on “Aljaima” which serves as the closing studio track on the album and completes the cycle of dances. “En las Antípodas” was recorded during the 2010 WOMAD festival in New Zealand and serves as a nice vocal bonus track without instruments, just the clapping of the audience.
Baila Sahara Baila is an incredible gift to the Sahrawis living in refugee camps. While Mariem Hassan is known for her topical songs, this album focuses on the joy of dancing and celebration. She recorded most of these songs in 2009 when she was recording Shouka. Underneath the Spanish liner notes is a triptych photograph of a refugee camp which serves as a reminder of the circumstances still facing Sahrawi refugees. This may be Hassan’s final record, but it brings her substantial career to a magnificent conclusion.
Originally published in RootsWorld Magazine.