Anyone familiar with the hypnotic, bluesy jams of Tinariwen or Bombino will know that ‘desert blues’ has enjoyed increasing international popularity over the last couple of decades. IMARHAN, however, are redrawing the lines completely. While staying true to traditional arrangements and rhythms, they have fashioned a new iteration of Tuareg music by injecting some seriously funky chops and a good dose of psychedelia into their new album Aboogi.
Hailing from Tamanrasset, an oasis city in Algeria, I was curious to see how Imarhan’s songs would translate in the basement of YES, Manchester. Their writing is heavily influenced by the natural elements, culture and colours of their home. Their new album is the first to have been recorded in the studio they built themselves back in Algeria. Its construction means they no longer have to travel to Europe to record. Presumably it also means they have more creative space and control to produce the music they want to. As such, it’s a very special place for the band and the name of the new album pays it homage.
On the day of the gig, the band had posted on Instagram a photo of themselves exploring the city in which they were wearing jeans, hoodies and leather jackets. It was therefore a pleasant surprise on the night to see that the percussionist and bass player had opted to wear traditional allichu veils that covered most of their faces. It was a striking reminder that despite the powerful international influences of funk, blues, and rock in their music, they are inextricably tethered to their Tuareg roots.
The first few songs of the set were tranquil with a soothing lilt. Each was punctuated by sparse and beautiful phrasing from acoustic and clean electric guitar. I became increasingly aware of the rich layers of vocals echoing those of Sadam, the bandleader. It sounded as though there were far more than just three vocalists in the band. Just as I began to get lost in the hypnotic, rolling rhythm, the break in their fourth song of the set – ‘Achinkad’ – came crashing down as Sadam stepped on his distortion pedal with a grin on his face and turned the energy up a few notches.
It was clear that Sadam and the band genuinely enjoyed interacting with the audience in the intimate venue. Frequently we were welcomed into their call and response vocal motifs. They also delighted in each other’s reciprocal harmonies and artfully weaved these into the evocative soundscape. It was utterly captivating.
The driving yet unpredictable rhythm of the drums and bass kept us hooked, wondering where it would take us next. The percussionist animatedly leapt between a djembe and a calabash (made from a vine-grown gourd or vegetable which is left to mature and used as a container or drum) demonstrating their huge range of percussive sounds. Imarhan are masterful musicians and it was a joy to see such dexterous and tasteful guitar playing. Looking around, it was clear that everyone in the room was well and truly under their spell.
Even for those unable to understand the lyrics, it would be hard not to sense the melancholy of some songs. While many of them exuded a feeling of celebratory pride, some of the sparser songs such as ‘Tindjatan’ had darker undertones. This was a reflection of the intention of the new album to portray themes of oppression, lost youth, and the day-to-day struggles of semi-nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara. The undulating mood and pace throughout the set was just one more reason this will remain such a memorable show.