It’s been nearly two decades since nomadic Tuareg musicians Tinariwen first lurched forth from the Sahara Desert and started charming Western audiences with their hypnotic mix of electric blues riffs, tribal rhythms and droning ancient chants. They sang rebel songs about their exile from Mali and told of bloody guerrilla wars, yet somehow ended up jamming with Carlos Santana, winning Grammy Awards and opening for the Rolling Stones.
Their protégés Imarhan now lead a new generation of Tuaregs with a slightly different experience and perspective of the world. Whereas Tinariwen grew up at the height of the troubles and only exchanged their Klashnikovs for Fenders in around 1991, Imarhan hail from the oasis city of Tamanrasset in South Algeria and forgoe the traditional robes and head dresses for leather jackets and Levis. There’s a more romantic, bohemian feel to their attitude compared to their outlaw warrior ‘big brothers’, and they are part of a community of musicians that naturally jams together and gathers for impromptu boogies.
Led by frontman Sadam (a cousin of Tinariwen’s bass player Eyadou Ag Leche), these guys know their history but take just as much inspiration from funky West African legends like Ali Farka Toure, Algerian folk music and finger picked, acoustic, gypsy jazz. Don’t expect trancey, desert rock swamp - their sound glides nimble and bright. There’s no trudging, lonely and heartbroken across the sandy dunes - Imarhan are dancing free and upbeat, and celebrating their roots.
Title track "Imarhan" (which translates as – ‘the ones I care about’,) is probably the best example of this. It’s utterly infectious, full of strutting, Afrobeat grooves, soulful, restrained vocals and those ceaseless, melodic, guitar licks that babble and chirp. You can be forgiven for breaking out into embarrassing, spasms and dad-dance jigs when the rhythms start to build.
Their quieter moments have an impact too. Assuf, meaning ‘nostalgia of the desert’, is their name for the melancholic spirit of the blues, and that feeling lingers large on opener "Tarha Tadagh" - an intimate campfire croon that gently warms and comforts. Tinkling, acoustic lullaby "Idarchan Net" too strikes sparse and delicate, whilst ‘Id Islegh’ throws up dreamy classical, Spanish-style finger-picking and captures Sadam at his most weary.
With the success of not only Tinariwen, but also Songhoy Blues, Daman Albarn’s Mali projects and the general growth of ‘world music’, there’s a natural market and host of opportunities ahead for Imarhan, but it’s interesting to see that they’ve chosen to sign with German label City Slang and head out on tour with an indie rock upstart like Kurt Vile. It looks like a conscious effort to take the music to a younger crowd beyond the pages of broadsheet culture sections and middle class festival slots.
It’s bold approach, from a group of musicians clearly focused on soaking in a wide range of influences and offering their own distillation of the Tuareg sound. The apprentices aren’t fully ready to surpass their masters just yet, but they are intent on writing their own story.