Imarhan on Recording Their New Album “Aboogi” in Their Algerian Hometown | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, June 17th, 2024  

Imarhan on Recording Their New Album “Aboogi” in Their Algerian Hometown

Found in Translation

Jan 28, 2022 Web Exclusive Photography by Fehti Sahraoui Bookmark and Share

An isolated, notoriously dangerous desert is preferable to amenity rife Western locales. At least that’s the case for Imarhan while working on an album. That’s because the rising Tuareg Saharan nomad-descended rockers draw on their small Algerian town of Tamanrasset for inspiration and productivity. The band is an up-and-comer in the sand-and-sun swept “desert blues” rooted in their local folk lineage while incorporating Western elements. Spearheaded by the acclaimed band Tinariwen 40 years ago, the niche but beloved genre has seen acts like Bombino open for Robert Plant and recruit The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach as producer, while Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime cracked a number of major publications’ best albums of 2021 lists. Imarhan’s third album, Aboogi, is poised for similar breakout success, the flaring climactic guitar solo and full throated chanting on opening track “Achinkad” striking a just-right balance between his homeland’s traditions and his Western influences. The album’s third single, “Adar Newlan,” even features guest vocals from Gruff Rhys (of Welsh band Super Furry Animals).

Ahead of today’s release of Aboogi, frontman Sadam Ag Ibrahim brought new meaning to the phrase “home is where the heart is” when describing Tamanrasset to Under the Radar over Zoom. Clad in both a Nike sweater zipped to the chin and a watch with its wide face on the inside of his wrist, Ibrahim spoke softly, his native Tamashek translated by an interpreter who was also on a video call that cut out repeatedly because of his far flung homeland’s spotty internet. Ibrahim stroked his neatly trimmed goatee with his long slender fingers and smiled warmly while recalling how Imarhan were some of the last musicians to ever work with Tuareg elder statesman Japonais, before describing why Tamanrasset weddings are as fun to play than the most hyped of Western gigs, and going on to share much more.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): This new album is not only the first you and your band recorded on your native soil in Tamanrasset. You also recorded it in the city’s first ever professional studio, a facility that you built. How did it feel to break so much ground on the project?

Sadam Ag Ibrahim: Yes, we built the studio there by ourselves, using only material that we found from the local community. All the gear was brought in from Paris. It was a great experience to be able to record an album in our own studio that we built, and it made us really happy.

Why was it better to do that than go abroad to record?

Because Tamanrasset is a lot closer to our influences, to what inspires us, which is all the nature that we know, and all the landscapes around the city. Every time we recorded in Paris, or other larger cities, we’d kind of lose our inspiration. Because it was such a different setting than our true muse. Also, in Tamanrasset, we were able to record with local musicians, especially Japonais. That wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

How exactly do your local landscapes inspire you?

The colors there are really inspiring. The calm. The sun. The wind. All the elements of nature are a big source of inspiration. Also everyday life—our culture, the way our people dress and live, is another inspiration. It’s so nice to be close to that when we record.

You’ve previously said that Japonais, while he was still with us, “knew about Imarhan and wanted us to sing his songs, because he didn’t have the strength and trusted us to carry his music on.” How did that feel?

Japonais was a good friend of mine and the band’s. We met him through Tinariwen. Since then, every time he passed by Tamanrasset, he’d visit us and we’d play music together. He told us he didn’t have the strength to play music anymore by himself. He relied on the new generation to play with him and play his songs. So he gave some of his songs to our band. So I’m really, really thankful and happy that we could have him on the album before he passed away. It’s an honor for us to have him.

How did his death affect you?

It was quite a shock. Very sudden. It was also sad because we were preparing to record an entire album of his songs with him. We had to postpone it, because of COVID. But Japonais still had some songs that he wanted to record with us. So everyone is sad about his passing, obviously. But we all have great memories of working with him, of the moments we spent with him, and the music we played together and the songs he wrote. He has a pretty strong legacy in the Tuareg community and music scene, especially in Tamanrasset because he spent a lot of time there.

Tell us about one of your favorite memories with him.

Japonais told me, when we were recording, that my bandmates and I should really live the moment to its fullest, and make sure everyone was having a great time. Because we are lucky to have this time together, and we don’t know if we are going to have the same thing after. It felt almost like he knew he would not be alive for long after that.

What is your relationship with other Tuareg music elders like Tinariwen? Prior stories have quoted you saying there are distinct differences between Imarhan and Tinariwen, and that they should not be lumped together.

There are strong links between our bands. We’re like family. We of course have the same roots and culture. We are of the same land and language. But at the same time, each of our bands has its own style and own colors that we are trying to express in the music. And you can feel the differences in the music, because we are not of the same generation.

Have members of Tinariwen ever given you advice, or been able to relate to you about being abroad and being uninspired and homesick?

While we miss home and the inspiration it gives us while creating music, the best thing about being a musician is it makes you travel. So we’ve been very frustrated throughout the pandemic to not be able to tour. Our band has shared and discussed so many touring memories with Tinariwen. And they have given us a lot of advice about life on the road, how you should deal with being onstage, and so on, because they have 20 years of touring experience. They’ve been really helpful, especially when we started out, about helping us deal with being in foreign countries and playing to audiences that don’t know about Tuareg music and culture.

What is one of your best memories of being onstage while touring abroad, and realizing you’re bringing your music to the wider world?

Our first show in London, in 2016, was part of our first European tour. We played in some kind of small bar, and were super scared and self conscious. It was like a DIY show. And thankfully people really got into the music and loved it. Everyone was dancing like crazy. So that gave us a lot of courage.

In some ways, your music shouldn’t be too foreign to international audiences. After all, it’s not traditional folk but “desert blues,” with certain overlaps. And you have expressed a desire in the press to try and make your music sound more international.

We play modern instruments, and so our music is not that far from other kinds of music. We are also exposed to other kinds of music because of social networks. So we didn’t decide what music we were going to play, we just started playing and picking up from all styles.

But it sounds like Western music fans have a thing or two to learn from you. In a prior interview you said “The best shows you will catch in Tamanrasset are the weddings. There aren’t any sound checks, there isn’t any good gear, but everyone is happy!” Are the rest of us missing out?

That’s true! We don’t have professional music venues on par with the rest of the world. But we have lots of weddings, and that’s where people see live music. We can never find the right gear. It’s always a nightmare to get everything ready for the live show to start. But people are in such a good mood, and sing and dance a lot, so that they really make up for the fact that it’s not the best conditions to play live. And we don’t care about anything else, we just give it all we have, and the performances are so intense.

Maybe those shows are more fun and pure than anything that can be found in the more jaded West.

Every way of playing music is legitimate. And every kind of music has its own place in its own context. I don’t think it’s better or more intense to play at a wedding than at professional venue with a good PA and more prep. One of my fondest memories was at a small festival in Canada where there wasn’t much time to prepare. Each act went onstage right after the other. You could feel a very strong connection between the bands and the audience. Everyone was dancing and it felt very natural, like the audience was part of the show as well. I’ve enjoyed that kind of vibe, and the weddings at home.

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