Clore Leadership Programme
Clore Leadership Programme

Music, identity and politics in the last colony in Africa

Katriona Holmes writes about her visit to the Sahawari refugee camps in Algeria as part of her Ellie Maxwell Travel Bursary.

Katriona Holmes
Katriona Holmes

Photography: Alan Gignaux 

The Ellie Maxwell Travel Bursary has been offered to Clore Fellows each year in memory of 2004/5 Fellow Ellie Maxwell and in recognition of her life's work addressing social division through the arts. You can read about the 2015 recipients here.

The purpose of my visit was to discover how the Sahawari people of the refugee camps in Algeria are using music to express themselves in a restricted living environment, help stabilise their community and preserve their threatened cultural identity.  

In so doing I fed into a project of the charity Sandblast Arts about the El Shaheed El Wali music band.  The Sahawari people have lived as refugees since Morocco invaded the Western Sahara in 1975.  The band was founded in 1975 as the Sahawari set up their state in exile.  They were one of the biggest Sahawari bands of all time.  They sang about resistance, the occupation and returning to the Western Sahara.

I conducted interviews with musicians and cultural figures to elicit their stories and discover the role of Saharawi music in the continuing struggle to be heard.  The band were extremely important for the Sahawari in unifying them after being driven from their homes and maintaining their solidarity as they continued to fight for their right to return.  As a London diplomatic Sahawari representative told me ‘music is our identity’.

Their traditional music was drumming and singing linked to an oral tradition featuring poetry, story-telling and theatre.  Since the exile they have embraced the keyboard and other instruments such as the tidinit, from Mauritania.  Their attitude, like that generally of the Sahawari culture, is one of tolerance and adaptation.  One musician and teacher we interviewed said that the diversity of Sahawari music had no limits and that the addition of new instruments and influences into the culture, far from diluting or weakening, was enriching it.

Up until the exile the Sahawari moved across the desert following food and water and adapting to the landscape and climate. In the refugee camps they live a transitory and uncertain existence yet are largely unable to roam. On an international level however the young are still travelling and practicing skills of adaptation.  Most of them study abroad as education takes a high priority for the state, who have pledged to gain their goal of self-determination through peaceful and diplomatic means.  These young people return with a diversity of cultural influences and experiences and this is impacting on their culture.  I see enormous potential for innovation as a culture adapts, changes and incorporates other diverse cultural elements. 

The preservation and morphing of cultural identity and practice within the context of major changes in politics, society and lifestyle fascinates me.  Culture is always shifting and always political, particularly evident when it is constantly being shaped by larger international political agendas.  

I learnt many things. Life in the camps is extremely hard.  They exist from UN aid and international donations which have decreased in recent years.  Women hold a strong and equal place in the society and hold several governmental positions. Their rich and fascinating culture bucks the stereotypes, retaining much of the values that these nomadic peoples have held for centuries, whilst adapting and progressing within the international political impasse. 

2015 is the 40th anniversary of the occupation. I have programmed Sahawari singer Aziza Brahim at the Knockengorroch World Ceilidh festival.  I am also working on a film to help bring this people’s story and music to the wider world.

Interested? Check out the British Library's archive of Sahawari music here.

Note: Katriona's full report on her visit to the Sahawari camps can be read and downloaded below.





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