Looking for “authentic” world music? You won’t get much more down-to-earth than Imanaren, a group of Berber musicians from the south of Morocco whose debut record was self-released on a limited scale within the country before being re-released by the Dutty Artz label. According to the label’s Web site, band leader Hassan Wargui “isn’t allowed to play music in the house, so we recorded [some music videos] with his local friends and fellow musicians in a natural amphitheatre carved out by a waterfall in a dry gorge.” Traditional musicians relegated to outdoors practice by unimpressed family patriarchs? Now that’s authentic.
The good news is twofold. DIY or not, the recording quality of Imanaren’s debut is impressively full and warm, if a little weak in the lower registers, and just as important, the tunes are smokin’. My understanding of what constitutes “traditional Berber music” is hazy at best – except for knowing that Berbers are the indigenous, non-Arab peoples of North Africa, whose populations traditionally tended to concentrate in the mountains.
Fortunately, further knowledge is entirely unnecessary to appreciate tracks like “Taldrar N Lawlia (The Flowering of the Wise)”. The tune rolls from the speakers on a gentle bed of hand drum rhythms and a plucked oud (lute) melody which is picked up and amplified by the intertwining vocals. The tune weaves a hypnotic spell which ends all too quickly notwithstanding its 4:40 running time.
That running time makes this the second shortest track on the album. There are only seven songs here, but five of them are in the six to nine minute-plus range, making for a satisfying listening experience. Songs have plenty of time to find a groove and milk it. Instrumental solos and rhyhmic shifts are few, but if you like to trance out, this might be your new favourite record.
“Ajddige (The Rose)” picks up the tempo a little, using the oud to weave a more complex rhythm and counterpoint to the vocals while sacrificing nothing in terms of listenability. “Ayyiss Bo Tdlal (The Jeweled Horse)” checks in at nearly nine and a half minutes, tapping the same head-nodding vibe. New sounds begin creeping in with this song – something that sounds suspiciously like a dulcimer underpins the whole affair, and the tune is served by a down tempo beat and a gently wailing, almost qawwali-like vocal. Unlike most other songs, this vocal is mostly solo, and thus lacks the sweetness of voices singing in unison.
The second half of the album returns to the (relatively) familiar template laid out at the start. “Assmoun (Companions)” is the standout here, a steady mid-tempo number that chug-a-lugs along with layered percussion and those sweet vocals. The album ends on an unusual note, with a live recording of “Rriy (Split Opinions)” a solo vocal/oud affair which is captured by the Dutty Artz crew and offers noticeably crisper sound.
Imanaren offers a refreshingly earthy change from the studio-tweaked, guest-star-studded offerings from some recent world music big shots (cough cough Tinariwen cough cough Youssou N’Dour cough cough Vieux Farka Toure). The band make no attempt to “cross over” into global stardom, but what they play, they play very well. Listeners looking to make a trip to the Atlas Mountains – even if only in their heads – will want this recording as their soundtrack.