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  • Jack Morgan Jones

Memory Matters: the Intertwining of Music and Memory in Sahrawi Culture

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

Jack Morgan Jones details his experiences and lessons learnt as a volunteer in the West Saraha through the understanding of the importance of memory and music to the Sahrawi community. Photographs taken by Maria Salgado.

There’s a music studio in the Sahara Desert. It doesn’t stand out much, because it’s no bigger than an office cubicle, and it’s tucked away in a sprawling refugee camp called Boujdour. Inside, there’s a couple of keyboards, a couple of speakers, and a desk overlain with wires that’s home to a computer and some recording equipment. There’s also a couple of desk chairs, a couple of stools, and enough dusty floorspace for one extra cross-legged listener. Najim Allal, a Sahrawi musician, occupies the desk. He’s a short man in his mid-fifties wearing a blue flannel shirt and smoking a cigarette, as he moves with seriousness from track to track – a remix of his greatest hits from back when he went international in the 1990s.

Najim Allal in the Studio. Photo credit: Maria Salgado

The Sahrawi people’s modern-day homeland, ‘Western Sahara’, was taken from them by Morocco in 1975. Of those that stayed, they now live in Africa’s last colony. Of those that fled, they have been exiles in the Sahara ever since. Today, there are over 175,000 forgotten Sahrawi refugees in the south-west Algerian desert spread across multiple camps, all of whom want to return to their homeland and commit their time in the Sahara to the history books. Once their elder generation passes on, however, none of the Sahrawis will have been of the generation that lived in Western Sahara. Two generations have known nothing but the desert. Memory, therefore, has an important function in their society and for their cause.

Being able to express a collective memory, through songs such as Najim Allal’s (check him out on Spotify), has a transformational power. Before the Sahrawis were under Moroccan occupation they were under Spanish subjugation; it was then, in the 1960s, that music began to play a key role in the creation of emancipatory thought. Music always unifies; but here, in this case, it also revolutionised. The lyrics of that decade stressed a common struggle, and allowed Sahrawi society to make unexpected societal progress as they transcended conservative family allegiances and religious gender roles. When Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975, music then came to represent an ongoing reaffirmation of both non-violent resistance and self-determination.

Boujdour under the midday sun. Photo credit: Maria Salgado

Every cause benefits from the ability of those that care about it to commit things to memory. The Sahrawis take active steps through their music to keep themselves from ever forgetting. But there are modes of expression other than music that also have that same transformational power. Many people are capable of doing something good in the world, and it’s good that they do, but not so many can explain why it matters to them that they do what they do, and express it in a way that gets others to start caring as well. In the liberal corporate epoch of a million causes and none, it’s harder than ever to show people why they should care about any one particular cause, but here we can learn a thing or two from the Sahrawis.

The modern-day volunteer should learn to memorise things, and they should choose the things they memorise with care. You shouldn’t have to rely on your phone. Showing someone a picture on your phone or whipping out Wikipedia when engaged in conversation (some even go so far as to recite Wikipedia to your face), are not the actions of somebody in the business of memory-making. People are interested in the people who care about a cause, long before they ever come to care about the cause itself. Given this, it is not enough to rely on vignettes of small-time musical celebrities – you should want to be able to use facts about a cause in a way that does not engender any suspicion of adrenalin-fuelled voluntourism.

Children playing in Boudjour. Photo credit: Maria Salgado

Everybody has something to say about the big events of 2020. We want not to be impressive, but to impress, and for this we must be able to recall what went unnoticed in 2020. For example, at the very beginning of the year, Bolivia became the latest country to suspend diplomatic ties with the Sahrawis. This might seem like boring trivia, but the point here isn’t to use this fact in conversation – the fact itself is dry, as are most facts – the point is rather that this fact, once memorised, gives you the confidence to express yourself and emote.

Form is much more important than substance here. How should you effectively advocate for a cause when the person listening to you has never even thought about it before? Realise that the hard facts are not to be given unless they’re asked for; know that keeping them in reserve places you in a position of strength. It is not that I can say “most states don’t recognise the Sahrawis,” – it is that I can say it with confidence, whilst having kept my powder dry. Memorising facts about a cause allows you the moral conviction to use the sweeping generalisations that get remembered – after all, the Bolivian decision really is nothing new, most states don’t recognise the Sahrawis because of economic ties with Morocco.

Boys and girls attend a Sandblast English lesson. Photo credit: Maria Salgado

Kids sang all the time while I was volunteering with the Sahrawis. I remember that. I don’t remember what they were singing about, because I don’t speak Hassaniya, but even if I had I don’t think it would have made much difference – it would not have been the content of their songs, but the fact that they sang in the way that they did, which would have affected me. Although they are trapped in the past, with bent TVs that show European football matches from the 1990s, music has allowed the Sahrawis to master a collective memory that keeps alive their vision of a different future, and it was the spirit of the thing that carved out a space for itself in my imagination. ‘Sandblast’, the charity with which I went to the Sahara, stokes these fires through their ‘Desert Voicebox Programme’, providing musical education to Sahrawi children.

So, help in whatever ways you can, but whenever you help, also take some time to go over the facts again, and make them part of the furniture in your mind. It’s a blank cheque. You won’t know how much it’s worth until you find yourself impressing that one person with deep pockets who didn’t realise where their money could be going.

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