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13 May 2014

Saharawi music in the refugee camps in SW Algeria

Violeta Ruano has been researching Saharawi culture and politics for almost three years, having been involved in different projects in the Saharawi refugee camps, in SW Algeria, throughout that time. Currently doing her PhD in Saharawi music at SOAS, between September 2013 and April 2014 she lived in the camps, conducting fieldwork and collecting samples of different Saharawi music styles. The results of her work have now been archived in the British Library, also leaving copies in local institutions in the camps. From traditional drum and voice songs to revolutionary modern band tunes, this unique collection portrays the musical diversity of Saharawi culture and documents the history of their struggle for independence. All the songs in this collection are sung in the local Arabic dialect, Hassaniya.

Female traditional band in a regional cultural festival in Al Aiun, Saharawi refugee camps (Dec 2012) Violeta Ruano

Answering the question ‘What is Saharawi music?’ has proven to be much more difficult than I thought it would be when I first became involved with Saharawi culture in 2011. During several trips to the Saharawi refugee camps, including a recent long stay, I have realised that Saharawi music is not something uniform, but a term that includes many beautiful and unique styles that contribute to a rich cultural heritage. Traditionally nomadic and dedicated to pastoralism, sharing stories and songs orally has been part of Saharawi culture for centuries. However, protracted exile, war and ongoing conflict have threatened this heritage throughout the past four decades, causing the disappearance of many traditional songs. For this reason, the Saharawi cultural authorities in the camps have supported different preservation and archiving projects that aim to protect and showcase this music. ‘Portraits of Saharawi music', in collaboration with the British Library, is one of them.

More than half of the indigenous Saharawis became refugees in 1975 when Morocco invaded their homeland, Western Sahara, and started bombing its population. At that time, the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, had been fighting for their independence from the Spanish colonial power for more than 2 years. In 1976, they started a war from exile against the Moroccan army that lasted 16 years, while building their self-proclaimed country in refugee camps in SW Algeria. Understanding the importance of culture to raise awareness about their struggle and keep their traditions alive, the Saharawis have encouraged the organisation of festivals and the composition of new songs inspired by the situation. These, together with their traditional music and poetry, is today one of the best forms of documentation of their history and landscape.

The following video shows a performance of traditional spiritual music, known as medeh, in honour of Prophet Mohamed. These songs normally are performed by groups of women, the medahat, who sit informally in a semi-circle playing the traditional tbal drums, clapping and singing in a call and response style. On this occasion, Salwan, a professional medeh group, plays ‘Bismilah' (’Thank God’), led by Addala Doula and with famous medaha Faknash Abeid on the drum.


The next video features Tarba Buiebu, a young percussionist who performs both traditional and revolutionary songs. She has learnt all the music and rhythms she knows from her mother, who she still consults from time to time. She plays two samples of traditional love songs from the repertoire of the lashuar, short sung verses about daily things, and an early revolutionary song that follows the same musical style, but incorporates new lyrics.


Saharawi revolutionary music was born in 1973 with the foundation of the Polisario Front. The leaders of the independent movement, mostly young students, took a bunch of traditional songs that were well known by the population and changed the lyrics, adding didactic words about their cause. These songs were then performed in secret meetings, some of them recorded and distributed throughout the territory on smuggled cassettes. In the following video we can hear the first of these revolutionary songs, sung by Habuza, one of the original singers, 40 years after it was sung for the first time.


Once in the refugee camps, this music was institutionalised and really supported by the newly formed Saharawi government. It received the name of nidal (about the nation) and the cultural authorities created local and national bands exclusively dedicated to its performance. Throughout the war years, nidal music was one of the cultural milestones of the Saharawi struggle, raising awareness about it, encouraging the fighters at the front and keeping the revolutionary spirit high among the refugees. Songs such as ‘The Sahara is not for sale', featured in the following video, really helped in keeping the revolution alive. This performance was recorded in early 2013 in a concert in Spain led by its original singer, Um Reghia, who popularised the song in the late 1970s.


Video recorded by Violeta Ruano for Sandblast. Posted with permission.

After the war ended in 1991, Saharawi musicians continued to play music of the struggle, although they have adapted the lyrics to the new political line taken by the Polisario: diplomacy and peaceful resistance. Today, most songs are about the national unity or remember important figures, dates and events. Current Saharawi musicians also use their music to denounce the irregular situation of the territories that are still occupied by Morocco, where Saharawis suffer daily abuses and violations of their basic human rights. In this video, ElHafed Mahayub sings about the peaceful demonstrations that take place to protest against this situation, offering the support of the refugees to their brothers and sisters living in occupied Western Sahara.


Saharawi music, as well as Saharawi culture, is a fusion music: fusion of traditions picked up throughout their nomadic years, fusion of influences from their first encounters with the West during colonialism, and fusion of experiences of opening up to the world due to their need to spread the word about their situation. The perfect blend of all this, Saharawi music today has managed to keep its two most important functions - to be the voice of the Saharawi people and, as young singer Lmarabet Mahfud, featured in the last video, says, to ‘preserve the unique Saharawi identity’.


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