Interview: Q&A with Imarhan – Saharan Rockers (January 2022)

You don’t expect that one of the most sought-after and original rock bands would eventually come from an oasis city in the depths of the Algerian Sahara Desert. Still, since their inception occurred in 2006, Imarhan has grown into an unadulterated and impassionate embodiment of what the soul of rock is. 

The quintet from Tamanrasset is ready to release its third album (Aboogi, out on Friday the 28th via City Slang) and also ready to bring rock music back-to-basics and forward at the same time.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure  of having a digital chat with the musicians ranging from their new release to ‘Assuf’ music to Tuareg life.

Aboogi, your third album, will be released in just a few weeks’ time. So, it’s perfect timing to learn a little more about it… Can you briefly introduce us to your new work? When did the new album’s project start and what are its main inspirations?

We were lucky to record Aboogi just before the pandemic and before the borders were closing. We had a team and guests coming from abroad and we had to end a bit faster than planned. The main inspiration for the album is our place, Tamanrasset, where we were born, where we grew up and where we live, it’s our city and it’s our desert, it’s a very special place, a unique atmosphere. Talking about being inspired by musicians, I personally listen a lot to Michael Jackson, BB King, but we all have different inspirations…

How was it to record an album in these Covid-times? How and how much has the pandemic influenced the project?

When we started to record, March 1 2020, we were hearing about the expansion of the virus, but then we got into the studio and once in the studio we were totally disconnected from the rest of the world, we were only focused on the album. We could forget about the virus at least during that time…

You named your new album after your own studio and I read that the name itself has an important significance as well… Why did you choose it and what does ‘aboogi’ stand for?

Aboogi is the name of the first houses that were built in Tamanrasset. Our Aboogi is meant to be the house of music. We feel good there, we play our music at home in great conditions, which is new and fantastic for us. We want to promote Aboogi with our album and we invite artists, local and international ones, here so that they can feel the good vibes of our studio!

Also, the album cover is quite telling. It represents indeed a simple, as well as natural, everyday desert life scene. Is that the gist of the album too?

Totally. The cover expresses the atmosphere and the universe of the album. Tamanrasset and its desert are our inspirations. You can see in the illustration our studio, the mountains, and everyday elements we live in Tam. Tam is also a place where you feel the natural elements, the sun, the wind…you can feel our nature and our culture in the cover, and those are the colours of Tam. 

In Aboogi you voice the social struggle and daily efforts of Tuareg people to achieve better life conditions. Struggle that affects the older as well as the younger generations. How much can music be effective in sending out this crucial message and how can it help to improve things for your people?

We never know if this can help. Our aim is to spread the message that others cannot spread. We try to be the intermediary between our people, the kids and the older ones of our community, and the rest of the world. We like to relay our message to the rest of the world in music.

As well as the living conditions of your people and their strong community spirit, what are the other main subjects you touch in your new album? Is there any song that you’d like to talk about in particular?

Temet, here are the lyrics translations:

This year, I saw the unimaginable:

The devil walking about in broad daylight,

A child barking.

There’s no one left,

No more relationships,

Just a scramble to possess.

This year, I saw the unimaginable:

An old man distraught,

Sitting opposite an old woman

Whose tears finally flowed.

No one is left here,

No more relationships.

Everybody grabs what they can.

It’s all about who has the most.

It talks about what is happening now in our community like everywhere; the loss of connection, people tend to forget about helping each other. It’s a very important message for us and something we should all be careful about, keeping the connections, the solidarity in between the generations.

On a strictly musical perspective… How and how much has your sound changed since 2015 and your debut? And what are the main differences between Aboogi and Temet, your previous album? 

There is a big difference, and this is what we like to do for each of our albums. We like to propose a unique universe. Temet is faster, with more rock and funk vibes, it has the electric ones of the many shows we play around the world. 

Aboogi is 100% from Tam, it’s the authentic music of our nature, of our desert, it’s our style, our Assuf.

Aboogi is enriched by some remarkable collaborations, like the one with Sudanese singer Sulafa Elyas, Tinariwen’s Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni or Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys. Can you present them to us? How did they come about and what were you looking for working with them?

Sulafa, we met her while touring in Sudan, we tried a collaboration on a song which ended up being the perfect song (Haboob) and we wanted to work more with her, it matches perfectly, she is an incredible singer. Abdallah is our friend from Tinariwen, one of the greatest story tellers and guitarists.

We met Gruff at an Africa Express session, we love his sound and his guitar playing, as well as his artistic way of being an ambassador of his culture and language. We feel close to his cultural fight. In general, we feel the music of these artists is close to ours, so we wanted to do an album with different musicians but always genuine and authentic ones.

One of the collaborations that I haven’t mentioned before is possibly the most important one and it features Mohamed Ag Itlale, who sadly passed away a few months ago. He was an inspiring figure for Tuareg culture, I also read that he was considered a proper “pillar of the Tuareg community”. Can you tell us a bit more about him and how much has he influenced your music?

Mohamed Ag Itlale, we called him Japonais, was the greatest Tuareg artist to us. His music and his words make him an indefinable poet. It was an honour we could play and record with him lately, we are blessed we could share such special and magical moments with him.

It’s quite a few years now that the so-called Tuareg-rock has reached a global audience. Do you think it can be identified as a good and proper music scene, and how much do you feel to be part of it?

We don’t feel like we play Tuareg-rock. We play rock, we play blues, but not only those. We like to play various styles. Our style is closer to what we call Assuf here. A different and new Assuf. Our music is slower than  the Tuareg-rock artists. We like to mix different tempos and not only fast ones. We also try to write and compose differently and to present a different world for each album. 

In the last few years, quite a few Tuareg musicians moved far away from Northern Africa to boost their career or even launch brand-new music projects in the States or Europe. Do you feel that this new trend is helping or harming Tuareg music?

It might help them in their personal lives, but it doesn’t help the Tuareg music if there is no desert. To create Tuareg music you need the desert. Creating is not the same as playing for an audience. To create you get inspired by your environment and to write Tuareg songs you need to feel and get inspired by the Tuareg nature.

Is traditional Tuareg music still having a grip on the younger generation born in the region?

Yes there are always many bands being created in Tam, they listen to traditional Tuareg music and create their own music, always based on traditions and with their own modern touch.

Is there any new act you’d like to suggest for us to discover and listen to?

There are many bands in each neighbourhood in Tam, you’ll always find a good one, one I do like is Tikoubaouine for instance…

We already said that your new album is coming out in a few days’ time. Do you already have any other plans for the near future?

We will tour in Europe in March and April, we are crossing our fingers that it will happen smoothly as we plan to play in 12 different countries! We can’t wait to play for our audience again. It’s been so long… 

We always close our interviews with a tricky question… How would you introduce your music to someone who has never listened to it?

I play my music for him! I take my guitar and I play. The guitar talks better for itself.


Aboogi, Imarhan's new album, will be released by City Slang on the 28th of January.
Follow THIS LINK to pre-order your copy and check out the dates of their upcoming tour on their official website