Mariem Hassan - Shouka (The Thorn)
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Mariem Hassan

Though Mariem Hassan has been making the occasional record for at least the past 8 years, Shouka manages to be the first to properly marry her voice and lyrics to arrangements befitting a singer of such authority. With a small army of electric guitars delivering single-chord droning riffs, Hassan spins tales of injustice and female empowerment. And the best parts of this disc- the rawer, least produced hunks- are better examples of Western Saharan Saharawi music than anything Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa or Terakaft have in their discographies.

Hassan comes with the experience of life in the El Ayoun refugee camp, one of some dozen instant villages that appeared over the Algerian border from the Western Sahara in the mid seventies, as Spain decolonized and the Moroccan military swooped in. Ironically, even in these camps, human rights are in question, though simply getting inside Algeria, and then dealing with the remoteness of it all has no doubt allowed for such a paucity of credible information. Yet, it is also in the camps that women like Hassan are able to be educated, demand equal rights and divorce their husbands, as Hassan did when a past partner tried to keep her from singing. Indeed, the Saharawi are a culture largely nurtured by women.

And it's this sort of cultural complexity that makes this woman's music so intense. "Ala Ahd Salama" finds its groove immediately, as two guitars compliment each so well you can almost hear them blush. This is slow music, taking its time to shape itself, shifting as subtly as the Saharan sands. The riffs are thick and Hassan doesn't sing over them; she rides them. Like the music of their Gnawa neighbors to the north, or proto-Rai from such Algerian singers as Cheikha Remitti, the music of the Saharawi is seductive, endless, and ultimately trance-inducing. Here and there, a track might have a wind instrument, a strummed acoustic guitar or an electric bass, but most of this music uses repetitive, guitar heaviness and ululations to set up patterns for Hassan to spin tales. From "Eid Arbain," where her voice soars like a kite over a suspended chord, to "Baba Salama," which pits her over a single guitar until a loping camel rhythm finally catches things before they fly apart, Shouka is well over an hour of songs by a woman who has clearly fought to be a leader and spokesperson for not only her people, but an entire musical style. - Bruce Miller

CD available from cdRoots

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