Shaheed El Uali Band and Beyond: 40 Years of Resistance Music in Western Sahara
Music has always been at the core of Saharawi culture. From the long poems of el-hawl dedicated to the land (adlal) or to narrating epic and war stories (thaydin) sung in deep Hassâniya (their local Arabic dialect), to the short call and response verses about love, religion and daily life affairs performed in the nomadic camps, oral traditions have been an important vehicle for the transmission of stories, customs, news and values in the western part of the Sahara desert. Throughout their recent history, music has also been a key way of documenting the Saharawi struggle against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, which in 1975 forced more than half of the indigenous Saharawis into exile in south-west Algeria. This conflict is rooted in a territorial dispute that has divided the Saharawi land and families for the past 40 years.
In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Saharawi republic in exile, this article presents a musical journey throughout the past four decades of Saharawi self-determination struggle. This is illustrated by some of the musical productions of the most famous Saharawi national music group—Shaheed el Uali, which in its many forms has taken the Saharawi message further than any political speech.
The Exodus: The Sahara Is Not For Sale
Traditionally nomadic shepherds, the Saharawis from Western Sahara belong to the cultural continuum of the Trab el-Bidhân (Western Sahara, Mauritania and parts of Morocco, Algeria, and Mali). This, however, was disrupted by different experiences of colonialism, with Western Sahara being the only country in the area colonized by Spain (the rest were under French administration). In addition, Western Sahara, a resource-rich territory with fisheries and phosphate mines, was also the only country in the region that did not undergo a process of decolonization. Instead, in November 1975 its colonial power transferred the administration to its northern and southern neighbors behind the international community. Both Morocco and Mauritania entered the territory using their respective military forces, which in Morocco’s case included bombing the resisting local population with napalm, cluster bombs, and white phosphorous. This forced more than half of the Saharawis to flee towards Algeria, where they established a series of refugee camps named after the main Saharawi cities—Al Aaiun, Smara, Ausserd, Dakhla, and, later on, Boujdour.
During the mass exodus from Western Sahara in 1975-76, singing revolutionary tunes became one of the most important practices to keep the morale up for the refugees.
In the days of the exodus music was very important, so much that a new type of song was born. The nights were long and very cold. We gathered around the campfire and we spent hours telling stories. Until somebody started to sing and the rest would follow. . . . But instead of the old ones now all the lyrics were political. . . . The rhythm was also different . . . more energetic, with more percussion and with the entry of guitars. I think it was a young girl named Um Murghiya who was the first one to sing the first modern song. She put voice and music to a poem of her mother that was called “The Sahara is not for sale” (Fatimettu ment Omar in García 2002:161-162).
Um Murghiya, who at the time was fifteen, was one of the refugees who had fled from the coastal city of Dakhla, in south Western Sahara. Enraged by the treatment they were receiving, one night her mother, Fatma Brahim, composed the poem “The Sahara Is Not For Sale,” an ode to the land of Western Sahara and the pride of the Saharawi people. It was directly addressed to their invaders while referencing the political situation of the time, as poets did in pre-colonial times. Um Murghiya gave voice to the poem, turning it into an early symbol of the Saharawi resistance movement; even nowadays, Saharawis of all generations know the lyrics by heart.
Um Murghiya singing “The Sahara Is Not For Sale” in Vitoria (Spain) in January 2013, 38 years after it was composed
The War: Polisario Vencerá
Once the Saharawi refugees settled in the harsh Algerian desert, their resistance movement, known as the Polisario Front, proclaimed the foundation of the independent Saharawi Republic and declared war to Morocco and Mauritania. In June 1976, Saharawi revolutionary leader El Uali Mustapha Sayed (the founder of the Polisario) died at the front during a military action against Mauritania. To honor his memory, the newly created Saharawi Direction of Culture (at the time part of the Saharawi Ministry of Information), led by music researcher and ex-rock singer Mohamed “Tamy,” created the national band Shaheed (Martyr) El Uali. “Tamy” made sure that voices such as Um Murghiya formed part of the band from the beginning, including others such as Um Dleila, Mariem Hassan, Ahmudy “Cahlush” and Mahfud Aliyen “Drebaba,” who was also an accomplished percussionist. The band, led by guitarists Ali Salem Kaziza and Brahim Ahmeyada, spent the war travelling internationally to spread the message of the Saharawi revolution, and some of its members became true heroes for the refugees. As Saharawi lawyer Haddamin Mouloud Said stated recently,
If we had to establish a ranking of people that have pushed more for this cause, Um Dleila goes just after El Uali Mustafa Sayed. After all, she has been the oil that has greased the whole revolutionary ideology of the Polisario. In our more advanced battle lines, Um Dleila’s voice was listened to in the trenches to raise the moral of our units. And, beyond the seas and the borders . . . Um Dleila’s songs were listened to every day. That voice has linked the existence and trajectory of each of us together with a common cause (Mouloud Said 2013).
In 1982, Shaheed El Uali released their first album, Polisario Vencerá (“Polisario will win”), a compilation of their early revolutionary hits praising the nascent nation in exile, the Saharawi army, and the Polisario leaders. It was recorded in Barcelona during one of the band’s international tours and included tunes such as “Never”—or in Hassâniya, magat milkitna doula (“we’ve never been enslaved by any country”).
El Uali performing "Never" in Berlin in 1984
In 1989, El Uali released another album in France called Orchestre Nationale Sahraoui El Wali that continued to explore similar themes. However, it included new instruments such as the keyboards, the drum kit, and a brass section in imitation of other West African national bands that had been developing since the end of the colonial rule in the region, e.g. Bembeya Jazz in Guinea (Charry, 2000; Counsel, 2009). In particular, this album—with tracks such as shaab sahara kassar gaïdu (“People of the Sahara, cut your chains”)—makes references to the war and the reinforcement of the national struggle, despite Morocco’s attempts to seal Western Sahara from the world with the construction of a 1,690-mile-long military wall across the territory, surrounded by over 5 million landmines and guarded by Moroccan soldiers day and night.
The Ceasefire: We Are Coming Home
1991 was a year of joy for the Saharawis. After long negotiations mediated by the UN and other international organizations, the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire with Morocco. This agreement included the conditions for the celebration of a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara. To that end, the UN created the MINURSO (the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara), implementing a series of measures to ensure peace in the territory. All these developments had a huge impact on the refugee population, who were convinced they were coming back home. This was reflected in the organization of festivals and celebratory parties during the first months after the signing of the ceasefire; it also encouraged the composition of celebratory tunes such as “Ya Ahel El Aaiun” (“Hey People from El Aaiun”—the capital of Western Sahara), which repeated the chorus: “hey people from El Aaiun, we’re coming back home!”
Performance of "Ya Ahel El Aaiun" in a Saharawi national celebration
The majority of these tunes were recorded in Shaheed El Uali’s following album in 1994. It was named Tiris after one of the inner regions of Western Sahara, and was recorded in Belgium by the NGO Oxfam during one of the last international tours of the band. This album included the participation of a second generation of Saharawi national musicians who had learned to perform music under the wings of the revolution. Also, many of them had become involved in music through a myriad of international musicians and music styles they had encountered throughout the years. Tiris, thus, included a distinctive West African keyboard sound mixed with Saharawi guitars and lyrics, Western sounding ballads, and a tidinit, the traditional bidhân lute commonly found in Mauritania. In a way, the album represented the Saharawi desire to go back to their roots, however showing the world that they could be “modern” and independent at the same time.
The Current Injustice: We Support the Peaceful Intifada
Despite the celebratory spirit of the early 1990s, the much-awaited referendum in Western Sahara has yet to become a reality. Nowadays, the Saharawi refugees are still stranded in the middle of the desert, while their long-lost families and friends keep living under the Moroccan occupation on the other side of the wall, subject to human rights abuses and marginalization. In recent years, the Saharawis from occupied Western Sahara have become an active source of protest against their situation (Zunes and Mundy 2010), organizing uprisings such as the intifada al-istiqlal (the uprising for independence) in 2005, led by human rights activist Aminetou Haidar, or the Gdeim Izik protest camp in the outskirts of the capital city of Al Aaiun in 2010, in which more than 10,000 Saharawis gathered for a month before it was crushed by the Moroccan police. These non-violent intifadas, inspired by protests in other well-known situations of protracted conflict and exile, such as Palestine have also inspired the composition of new Saharawi resistance music.
In the refugee camps, although Shaheed El Uali is no longer active as a group, many musicians who were involved with the band throughout the years still produce music inspired by the conflict in Western Sahara. One of the most representative examples is Mahmud Bara, a composer, guitarist, and keyboard player who creates revolutionary music since the 1980s and currently documents the Saharawi intifadas through his music.
My music transmits the reality we live in, as for example what is happening in the occupied zones. . . . When I learned that the Moroccan have killed forty martyrs, including children and women, I am not going to take my drum and my music and be happy. I compose in a way that conveys the sadness I suffer. Or when there is a victory like Aminatou Haidar’s or a demonstration by the youth, I write songs such as “We Support the Peaceful Intifada” (personal interview, September, 2013, Saharawi refugee camps, Algeria).
Bara represents a movement of “musical solidarity” between the refugee camps and the occupied territories that encourages artistic but also political exchanges, as well as keep fuelling the revolutionary spirit.
Musicians living in the diaspora in Europe have also been part of this “musical solidarity” movement, despite—or perhaps due to—living in a “double exile.” For example, Shaheed El Uali singer Mariem Hassan, who moved to Spain in the 2000s to follow an international career in music, felt inspired by the Gdeim Izik events to compose the powerful song “Rahy El Aaiun Egdat” (“El Aaiun Is On Fire”).
Mariem Hassan performing "Rahy El Aaiun Egdat"
In a very different style, but with similar determination, Saharawi singer and percussionist Aziza Brahim, currently based in Spain, also felt inspired by Gdeim Izik to compose one of the bluesy tunes of her acclaimed album Soutak (“Your Voice,” ).
Aziza Brahim performing “Gdeim Izik”
Aziza’s music, a mixture of traditional drum and vocal music and many other musical styles from West Africa and beyond, is today one of the maximum representatives of Saharawi artistic activism, using all her concerts as platforms to advocate for the respect of human rights and international law in Western Sahara.
As this brief exploration of the history of Saharawi music has shown, music in Western Sahara has been one of the most important channels for the manifestation of the Saharawi spirit and ideals. Today, more than 40 years after the beginning of the Saharawi revolution, musicians from all corners of the struggle keep finding inspiration in their socio-political circumstances to compose and sing new songs. This music, despite its many varied styles, helps to maintain a sense of community and solidarity among the Saharawis, as well as being a continuation of the more than 40-year-long tradition of resistance music in Western Sahara.
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Counsel, Graeme. 2009. Mande Popular Music and Cultural Policies in West Africa: Griots and Government Policy since Independence. Saabrucken: VDM Verlag.
García, Alejandro. 2002. Historias del Sáhara: el mejor y el peor de los mundos. Madrid: La Catarata.
Mouloud Said, Haddamin. 2013. “La noticia del año 2013 – ‘Um Dleila ha vuelto a cantar’.” Poemario por un Sáhara libre. http://poemariosaharalibre.blogspot.co.uk /2013/01/la-noticia-del-ano-2013-um-dleila-ha.html (accessed February 11, 2016).
Zunes, Stephen, and Jacob Mundy. 2010. Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. New York: Syracuse University Press.
Brahim, Aziza. 2014. Soutak [CD]. Berlin: Glitterbeat Records. GBCD/LP009.
El Wali. 1989. Orchestre National Sahraoui El Wali [LP]. Paris: Le Tremplin. CA941118.
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 The SADR (Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic) was proclaimed in Bir Lehlu (northern Western Sahara) on February 27, 1976. To this date, the SADR has only been recognized by 80 countries around the world.
 Spain transferred the administration of its colony, the then Spanish Sahara, to Morocco and Mauritania through the secret Tripartite Madrid Accords on November 14, 1975. Mauritania relinquished its claim over the Saharawi land in 1979.
 Popular Front for the Liberation of Saghia el Hamra and Río de Oro (the two halves in which the Spanish administration had divided Western Sahara). The Front was born in 1973 as an anti-colonial movement among Saharawi students, soon becoming the elected representative of the Saharawi people.
 Currently, this continues to be the longest military wall in the world.
 Mariem Hassan died in the Saharawi refugee camps after years of battling with cancer in August 2015.
Violeta Ruano is a writer, flute player, project manager and ethnomusicologist who has recently finished her Ph.D. in Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London with an AHRC England doctoral award. She has been researching Saharawi music and the culture of Western Sahara for the past five years, having written extensively about it in both academic and journalistic sources. Interested in advocacy and community engagement research, during her doctoral fieldwork in the Saharawi refugee camps in SW Algeria, Violeta developed the music recording project "Portraits of Saharawi Music," in collaboration with the British Library and the Saharawi Ministry of Culture. Currently, she runs the project "Stave House in the Sahara," which aims to facilitate the implementation of early music education in Saharawi primary schools.