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Before Sandblast

Photo by Emma Brown
Photo by Kevin Grant
The birth of Sandblast is inextricably tied up with the long term involvement of founder, Danielle Smith, with the Saharawi refugee community. Danielle's first visit to the refugee camps in 1991 catapulted her into a life-changing journey of educational and cultural activism in order to shed light on the invisible Saharawi story. In the 14 years leading up to the launch of Sandblast, Danielle visited the camps many times for extended periods to teach English, learn about Saharawi culture, their spoken language of Hassaniya and to document the Saharawi story through film and photography.

This period gave her insight into aspects of the struggle that were largely overlooked by the experts and pundits, namely how the Saharawi arts and rich oral traditions had been harnessed to play a vital role in expressing the unique cultural identity, resistance and aspirations of the Saharawi people.

The Birth 

The initial aim for setting up Sandblast, in 2005, was to organise the first-ever UK festival of arts and culture from Western Sahara. This idea evolved from the years Danielle had spent learning about and being inspired by Saharawi culture. It also came from the conviction that the story of the Saharawi struggle, told through music, poetry, dance, photography, art, film, theatre were powerful vehicles to build  and solidarity and would reach wider audiences.
Photo by Olivia Mann

Hosting a festival was attractive for other reasons too, namely:

1) It gave an opportunity to invite UK and international artists to become involved in creative collaborations with the Saharawis
2) The soft power for culture would help raise the profile of the Saharawis cause in a positive and peaceful way,
3) It would reaffirm the right of the Saharawis to freely express themselves; a right denied to them under the Moroccan occupation
4) Lastly, it would engage audiences of all ages and backgrounds to foster greater understanding between cultures and help shatter negative stereotypes about refugees and Muslim societies.

The Journey

The festival took three long years of hard work to become a reality. 

We started out with no track record and no roadmap. We also had minimal professional experience to guide us when we embarked on the huge tasks of raising funds, developing partnerships, sourcing the Saharawi artists in the refugee camps, getting their documents to travel and preparing them to perform for UK audiences. We were on a steep learning curve throughout and counted on enormous acts of faith, generosity and good will from all those who joined hands with us to make it happen.

The founder was determined that the participating Saharawi artists be regarded as artists first who also happened to be refugees and not the other way round. Danielle also set out to record and produce the debut album of Tiris – the Saharawi band from the camps that would be the artistic highlight of the festival. Formed in 2005 through an X-factor type competition process she worked over two years with them to develop their repertoire and band identity. In no doubt about their outstanding talents and ability to represent the best of Saharawi musical culture, Danielle aimed to ensure the world would appreciate them as they deserved.

Tiris in the camps

The Tiris band was made up of 8 members. There were 4 women- lead singer Shueta and 3 who sang, danced and played the traditional floor dum called Attubl- and 4 men, of which 3 were musicians playing piano, electric guitar and tidinit and Mufeed, who was the male lead singer.

Crucial votes of confidence

Initial support for the festival came from surprising sectors. The first backing came from the Trade Unions starting with Ruth Winters who was the head of the Fire Brigade Union at the time. More followed from UNISON, UNITE and smaller unions and a grant from the Arts Council gave us the wings we needed to fly.
Help from the Polisario Front to facilitate our logistical needs was indispensable, as was the amazing support we got from the Algerian
National Radio Station to record Tiris. They generously made their state-of-the-art studio recording facilities in Algiers available to record Tiris, over 10 days, and the Watan newspaper covered the accommodation of our artists during their stay.

The exceptional support and good faith we got from the British Embassy in Algiers, played a crucial role in making it possible for us to bring the Saharawi artists to the UK. And last but not least, we struck gold when Rich Mix, a community arts hub in East London, generously offered their venue in-kind to host the festival. They also gave us gallery space to exhibit photography from Western Sahara for one month prior to the festival.
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Registered Charity (England and Wales) :1115288 | Companies House Registration number : 05397223
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