Imarhan 2022
Photo: Fehti Sahraoui / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

Imarhan Return with Luminous Desert Rock on ‘Aboogi’

Desert rock’s Imarhan have always been strongest for their subtleties, and never more so than on the immaculately crafted tracks of Aboogi.

City Slang
28 January 2022

In 2019, desert rock group Imarhan, a band with blood and creative ties to Tinariwen, started to build a studio in Tamanrasset, Algeria, a major Kel Tamasheq city that the ensemble calls home. They named it Aboogi–for a type of early Kel Tamasheq dwelling structure–and there began to record its namesake album. Like every Imarhan record to date, Aboogi is rapturous, marked by warm vocal harmonies, trenchant commentary, and agile guitar work. Within this recognizable structure, though, the group sound more poised than ever before, the production fine-tuned and instruments overlapping in organic, dreamlike layers. Imarhan have always created exquisite work, but Aboogi is a cut above their previous two albums in terms of how each artful piece comes together.

Singles bookend the album. “Achinkad” is an allegorical tale of a gazelle who must flee her homeland and family to save her own life, a melancholy ballad in which lead singer Sadam is joined by an ever-growing group of vocalists on each wordless chorus. Near the song’s end, the band breaks into a run, with electric guitar joining acoustic and handclaps and voices picking up speed. Urgent and arresting, this thinly veiled anti-war protest makes for a dramatic opening.

On the other end of the record is the closing track “Adar Newlan”, a collaboration with Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, among other things. A cascade of ecstatic strumming leads directly into Rhys’s gentle Welsh verses of camaraderie. Following him, intertwining guitar lines frame Tamasheq-language expressions of the sorrows of an exhausted nation, which are given closure by a final iteration of Rhys’s upbeat call for solidarity and strong tea.

In between these two standouts are songs of history, modern society, and heartache to which Imarhan often welcomes friends from outside the core quintet. French musician Marco Ngoni brings Gnawa guembri to the rolling loops of ode “Laouni”. Rhys adds a wavering guitar line and backing vocals to the smooth solemnity of “Imaslan N’Assouf.” Sudanese singer Sulafa Elyas sings a fiercely poignant Arabic verse on lovesick “Taghadart”.

Bluesy “Tamiditin” features the late poet and Tinariwen co-founder Mohamed Ag Itlale, known as Japonais, his signature rough-edged vocals taking the lead on one of his final recordings. Another Tinariwen member, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, sings alongside Sadam on the battle epic “Tindjatan”. Each of these guests serves the music well, enhancing the community spirit embraced throughout Imarhan’s work.

Although these features are notable, there is even more magic between them. Aboogi is rich with luminous moments. The stripped-down openness of “Derhan” makes for a lively display of string skills over crisp rhythms. A lament for society’s selfishness, “Temet” is cut with dissonant pangs that communicate desperation on a visceral level. Perhaps the most exquisite track is “Asof”, a song of deep personal longing and betrayal on which a cushion of synths billows beneath the tension of simmering guitars and constantly building vocals. Following it, “Assossam” is a blatant, fever-pitched refusal to stay silent in the face of top-down displacement and destruction.

Imarhan have always been strongest for their subtleties, and never more so than on the immaculately crafted tracks of Aboogi. This group amplifies their and their neighbors’ local experiences as Kel Tamasheq citizens of the world, and the music they make in doing so dazzles every time.

RATING 9 / 10