Tuareg rock for a new generation.
Tuareg (or Assouf) is often described as the desert blues. This is exactly where you’ll find Imarhan, an exciting Algerian based quintet who launched onto my radar with their 2018 “Temet”. Returning with their follow-up “Aboogi”, it’s fascinating to hear how Imarhan’s complex and layered desert blues, or more aptly, desert rock, has evolved.
What I love about this album is that it feels deep-rooted in traditional Tuareg culture and then the rock elements grow and take over tracks over time. Take openers “Achinkad” and “Derhan” for example. Both start off as groovy acoustic guitar-based melodies with hand percussion and the odd call/response chant. By the halfway point, electric guitars have joined the party and are either soaring forward with epic solos or electrifying what’s already there. “Derhan” in particular has a tempo switch as the handclaps and hand percussion speed up with the riffs. It feels fluid, natural and full of community life. You don’t get this kind of dexterity easily in a standard rock track or a blues number, it’s something really only feel in desert rock.
These elements combine in new and interesting ways throughout the album. The dusty guitars of “Temet” (strangely not a song on the previous album of the same name) evoke a long journey and a bluesy melodrama. The fingerpicking waltzes of “Tindjatan” remind me of the Kora at times. Catchy vocals and a skip in the beat ensure that this mid-tempo beauty is a star that rises on repeated listens. “Asof” strips everything back to minimal guitar, a few jangling shakers and bells and a bewitching choir that feel earnest and grounded. It shows that rock can be transformed into many powerful mediums.
To flip the table, “Assossam” is an uptempo jam. The infectious call/response over big beats and bombastic guitars channel Africa’s courage and spirit to a night dance. The sole ballad on the album is a rustic duet with Sulafa Elyas. Imarhan makes reference in their linear notes that incorporating a Sudanese singer was important to highlight another part of African music within their own. Sulafa’s voice is stunning and the track stands totally alone from anything else on the album without breaking its flow. It’s one of the best duets I’ve heard in years.
The closing four tracks continue to spiral into wonderfully evocative and poetic territory. “Laouni” is a desert jive that has an infectious riff that pours down the notes like rainfall. “Imaslan N’Assouf” is like a slow and lethargic snake of a track that focuses on the blues side of Assouf. “Tamiditin” is an almost spoken-word piece over mysterious rock strums and desert sound effects. It sounds like a folklore story being brought to musical life. The closing track is by far the happiest and most musically uplifting. “Adar Newlan” is probably the lightest and easiest entry point to anyone looking at getting into desert rock. It’s got big chords, catchy vocal melodies and some nifty guitar and hand percussion work.
“Aboogi” is a fantastic album that grows more and more on you upon each listen. It feels steeped in sadness, wisdom and hope all at the same time and I find it amplifies whichever mood I’m in at the time. Imarhan has struck gold again and I hope this brings more listeners to Assouf/Tuareg music as a whole. This feels like one of those gateway albums in waiting to open up the sound to a new generation. Come on in, it is stunning here.