Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mariem Hassan

  • Deseos [Nubenegra, 2008] B+
  • Shouka [Nubenegra, 2010] ***
  • El Aaiún Egdat [Nubenegra, 2012] A-
  • La Voz Indómita [Nubenegra, 2017] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Deseos [Nubenegra, 2008]
This strong Saharaui woman is one more singing cynosure whose solo debut proves she needed her band. Without the backing of Leyoad and especially the male counterpoint of Jalihena, she permits herself unaccompanied meditations where she has trouble maintaining the same intensity of concentration, ours and possibly hers. Hassan remains a voice to be heard. But if you start drifting away, cue up the groove tracks "El Chouhada" and "Kalat Leili." B+

Shouka [Nubenegra, 2010]
Sahrawi powerhouse finds new Sahrawi guitarist and rides the haul music they share as hard as she can--for non-Sahrawis, maybe a little too hard ("Maatal-La," "Haiyu") ***

El Aaiún Egdat [Nubenegra, 2012]
Now pursuing an active musical career from Catalonia, this ex-nurse from the Western Saharan possesses the most remarkable vocal instrument to emerge from northern Africa--a searing contralto, serious yet excitable and often transported, that can cut into anyone's indifference. Born in 1958 like Rachid Taha, she's had it a lot harder--refugee camp, divorce, breast cancer, guitarist lost to leukemia. Nor does she project much of Taha's showbiz pragmatism--her calling is the Sahrawi style called haul, which on 2010's Shouka she and a new guitarist showcased in all its chorus-driven, prayerlike, insular intensity. By comparison, this one's forgiving enough to lift a tourist's spirits--there's some saxophone, and the melodies bid buenas dias. And then, two thirds of the way in, guitar and harmonica state a theme that may take a while to ID--holy moley, it's Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman," plus ululations and a friendly sax solo--and the rest of the album loosens up some more before climaxing with seven minutes of avant closer. Back in camp they may think that makes her a sinner. Folkies may grouse as folkies will. But I say she's trying to have some fun, and that she and we deserve it. A-

La Voz Indómita [Nubenegra, 2017]
"(Del Sáhara Occidental)," a subtitle explains, but the Western Sahara wasn't big enough to contain Mariem Hassan. Dead of bone cancer in 2015 in a Sahrawi refugee camp, she was postcolonial Africa's most striking female singer. Before, during, and after a European career of over a decade, her powersaw voice was intense at any volume, with none of the sensual comfort of the equally stirring Oumou Sangare, whose forested Wassoulou was so much more forgiving than Hassan's desert. Yet because this onetime nurse had the spiritual wherewithal to resettle in Barcelona, she got to make music with fellow Sahrawis and many others. Her sixth and final album is a DVD soundtrack, recorded solely in her last five years but digging back stylistically. Guests range from the Sahara ululators who haunt "Najter Alaila Anadal Lihuela" to New York avant-bassist Shanir Blumenkranz contrapuntalizing the desert blues "Latlal," from Yemeni-Israeli Ravid Kahalani to Sierra Leonean-Nigerian Seydu. I haven't figured out who's in the jazz combo that backs "Illah Engulek Di Elkalma," but I love the way her easy mesh with the idiom segues abruptly into one where the sub-Saharan Seydu softens her dry wail only to be overtaken in turn by a searing Sahrawi haul. The "Al Widaa" finale was recorded five months before she passed on in her haim, a word than means both family and tent. If 82-year-old Leonard Cohen made his death album, then 58-year-old Mariem Hassan made hers--and it's less sere. A-