Mariem Hassan, a tremendously talented Sahrawi singer, passed away on Sun., Aug. 22, in a Sahrawi refugee camp near Tinduf, Algeria.
Hassan was born in 1958 in Ued Tazua, a village in what was then known as Spanish Sahara, to a family of nomadic camel and goat herders. In 1975, after Western Sahara was invaded by Morocco, Hassan fled with her family to Algeria. Shortly thereafter, Hassan joined the group El Uali, named after El-Ouali Moustapha Sayed, co-founder of the Sahrawi liberation party Polisario Front, who died in battle.
Her first solo album, Mariem Hassan con Leyoad was released in 2002. In a rare interview with Carmelo Lattassa, Hassan described the Sahrawi musical tradition she was a part of: “We have our language [Hassaniya]. The Mauritanians have the same music that we do, but ours is more modern; they have the haul [traditional rhythm], as we do. Our songs are different because we talk of our problems since we fled from the Sahara–songs of the children crying because their fathers went to war and never came back. They talk about the women whose husbands and fathers went to war, never to return. They talk about the deaths, of life, of politics, of God, of our land to which we hope to return.”
Hassan’s life has been the subject of both a documentary, Mariem Hassan, la Voz del Sáhara, and a graphic novel, Mariem Hassan: Soy Saharaui. Even as she struggled with cancer over the course of the past decade, Hassan remained fearlessly committed to the cause of her people, releasing the 2012 album El Aaiun Egdat, which was inspired by Sahrawi protests and the Arab Spring. Afropop featured Hassan in a program from that same year, “Afropop Summer Serenade.” Afropop senior editor Banning Eyre had this to say about Hassan’s legacy: “Mariem had one of the most soulful voices in North African music. It was something that just cut right through to the soul. We were very lucky to experience her performance live in Europe. Sadly, she never made it to American stages, but she left behind some spectacular recordings on the Nubenegra label.”