Imarhan are a young band of desert rockers from the Sub-Saharan continent that have been raised on the music of Tinariwen – the influential Mali collective that came to prominence in the Nineties whose numerous fans include Bono, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Carlos Santana. Their music fused western influences of rock and the tribal music of their land which uniquely holds the roots of American blues. Following in the footsteps of their blues elders, Imarhan adopt a more modern approach in sound and dress but their desire to be heard beyond just their nomadic borders and boundaries of language are no less palpable.
The band have just finished a Spring European tour supporting indie rocker, Kurt Vile. The ‘pretty pimpin’ Vile album B’lieve I’m Goin Down also saw the Philadelphia musician dabble in desert rock as he retreated to Joshua Tree’s famed Rancho de la Luna studios to record a track and was inspired by a jam session with members of Tinariwen.
Imarhan share a direct link with Tinariwen as Eyadou Ag Leche of the latter is a cousin of frontman Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane aka Sadam. He guided their evolution, producing and co-writing several songs on Imarhan’s self-titled debut album which will be released on City Slang Records next Friday, April 29.
They have already embarked on a North American tour which will see them perform at the Great American Music Hall tonight. It is still not too late to get your tickets. Their tour will come to a close with two shows in New York City next month.
According to their label website the band’s ‘debut album is intent on dismantling the ideas western listeners have about popularized Tuareg music. This new wave of Tuareg musicians sound very different to the desert distortion that accompanies groups like Mdou Moctar or Group Inerane’. A whole generation of Tuareg musicians have thrived in the shadow of groundbreakers Tinariwen but Imarhan’s debut – language notwithstanding, is one of the few that can sit comfortably next to what music critics are now calling the third wave of psychedelic rock.
Its slow jams, unwielding guitar rhythms, traditional instruments and a nuanced complexity of composition that takes in blues, rock, reggae and a je ne sais quois that encompasses the non-schematic listening styles of today’s youth anywhere – thanks to access to travel, technology and the internet – making them that generation of Saharan music practitioners with the potential to transcend beyond the dusty label of ‘world music’.
It is aided by the quiet cadence of Sadam whose voice has an intimacy that manages to convey a melancholy akin to the Portguese Fado in its ability to evoke emotion and longing without understanding a shred of what is being sung. But dig a little deeper and the reflective lyrics of Imarhan’s songs paint an even lonelier picture informed as much by the Taureg people’s rich and complex history as the modern struggles facing their youth. It also shares the Mississippi blues strain of turning sadness into stoicism.
According to their press release the intimacy of Imarhan’s sound is no coincidence. ‘In the language of the Kel Tamashek people ‘Imarhan’ means ‘the ones I care about’. Sadam together with fellow bandmates Tahar Khaldi, Hicham Bouhasse, Haiballah Akhamouk and Abdelkader Ourzig all grew up near each other in Tamanrasset, Southern Algeria, in a Tuareg community of Northern Malian descent. The giant divide between their spiritual home and physical home is heard in their tracks – the funkier groove of Western Africa; the emptier, subtle tones of Saharan traditional folk music; and the fire and romance of Algerian Rai music.’
In an interview by e-mail, frontman Sadam shed some light on the unique Tuareg people’s relationship to music; their time touring with Vile, playing for audiences who would not have ordinarily come out to see an Algerian group singing in Tamashek; and how they would like to appeal to a new generation of young music fans everywhere.
Examiner: How would you describe the Tuareg people’s relationship to music?
Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane aka Sadam: Music is part of the daily Tuareg life and has always been. The traditional Tuareg music is made of, for instance, the Tinde (percussions played by the women), Himzad (type of violin), and the electric guitars of course, that have been introduced in the tuareg culture in the ’70s. You don’t have such music venues, even in our city Tamanrasset, like in Europe or America, so we play at families parties such as weddings, and we like playing in the desert with our guitars plugged on our batteries amps.
Examiner: Why do you think there is such an interest in this Sub-Sahara strand of desert rock, despite the language barrier – and how does that relate to the fact that the Mississippi Blues can be traced back to its roots in Mali?
Sadam: We feel that Americans do understand well Tuareg music and we guess it’s because of the culture of blues that they have, our music is a blues as well, it is called Assuf, which means the ‘nostalgia of the desert’. There is no need to understand the words, music is universal and you can understand the feelings and the vibes of the songs without understanding a word.
Examiner: In spite of not knowing the actual meaning before I was given the lyric sheet to “Imarhan” the album, I was drawn to the music, it had a melancholy and a real proficiency with the way the guitars, melodies and other instruments were played and arranged – however upon now knowing the words, it feels a lot sadder. There is talk of “shutting pain away in my soul” and “exhausted by this search for truth” – what inspired this album for you on a personal level? Religion, the state of the world, you recorded the album in Paris in 2014 when the media was filled with so much distressing news, yet the Tuaregs and the region you are from – are not unfamiliar with the ravages of war?
Sadam: Tamanrasset is not a place of war. The struggles we are facing are mostly social ones. But it is surrounding by war places yes. Though our album tracks are not necessarily speaking about that. They are about love, nature, loneliness, about the social struggles of the youth. Our songs also don’t aim at speaking only to the tuaregs but to everyone, to any young person in the world. They are about friendship and solidarity. We are all facing the same issues in general, and mostly due to the lack of solidarity…
Examiner: In “Tahabort” you sing about a simpler time being in the company of camels – an echo to the nomadism but also of those who “are grounded and know who they are” – who are these people you are referring to? Who are these ‘others’ and is this a sentiment that is shared by others in the community? Is it part of a wider frustration?
Sadam: We want to say that it’s important to know where you are coming from, respecting your roots, which is the best basis to everyone for going ahead. It’ s important to not forget about it.
Examiner: What bands from outside Mali have impacted your sound for this record – apart from shimmery guitars and quiet finger-plucking, I also hear psych rock and Jimi Hendrix?
Sadam: There aren’t specific bands that inspire us, we do listen to a lot of different music from many places, through internet, we get influenced by many kinds of music, traditional Tuareg music, and blues, rock, pop, reggae, funk…we’re open to any kind as long as it’s good!
Examiner: Today, how much of music from this region in general is inspired by Western bands?
Sadam: Tuareg artists are mostly influenced by traditional tuareg music but we ourselves feel attracted by multiple music styles. Today you can listen to any music from all over the world, it’s time for a new sound, for a new tuareg sound too.
Examiner: As a new generation of desert rockers with direct connections to Tinariwen and Tuareg roots leading back further to Ali Farka Toure what were your ambitions for this album – to carry on and expand from what Tinawiren have done?
Sadam: Tinariwen inspire us a lot because they created their own sound, their own music, that has been inspiring many other artists from our community. We want to carry on with our Tuareg roots and propose a new sound, our own sound, like Tinariwen did.
Examiner: You’ve toured with Kurt Vile – what was that like in terms of how the audience re-acted to your music?
Sadam: It was interesting to see how this audience reacted because most of them have never listened to any Tuareg music. It was a challenge and we loved the fact that each night we were able to get new people interested by our music, people who might have never come to our show before seeing us on tour with Kurt Vile.
Examiner: As a kid how were you first introduced to Tuareg music – I ask because I loved the line in Addunia Azjazzaqat which says “And know that paradise is to be found, under the feet of your mother,” though I don’t really know if I fully understand it.
Sadam: This sentence is a famous muslim one, it means that as long as you do what your mother wants, as long as you make your mother happy, as you respect her, you will be able to find your way in life.
To pre-order Imarhan please click here. For tickets to their show at The Great American Music Hall tonight, please click here. For further tour details, please see below.
Imarhan North American Tour
Apr 21 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall
Apr 22 Claremont, CA Edmunds Ballroom, Pomona College
Apr 23 Venice, CA Del Monte Speakeasy presented by Radio Afrique
Apr 24 Los Angeles, CA Echoplex
Apr 28 San Antonio, TX Paper Tiger
Apr 29 Austin, TX Levitation
May 1 Lexington, KY Cosmic Charlies
May 2 Louisville, KY Zanzabar
May 3 Chicago, IL Schubas
May 4 Madison WI The Frequency
May 5 Cincinnati, OH MOTR Pub
May 6 Akron, OH Musica presented by Earthquaker Devices + Moon Block
May 7 New York, NY Le Poisson Rouge
May 8 Brooklyn, NY Baby’s Alright