Words by David C. Obenour
For many bands breaking ground on a new album simply means starting to write, starting to play live, or maybe even starting to record in a studio. But for Southern Algerian quintet, Imarhan, to break ground was a literal undertaking.
Having released two previous albums, the band had been forced to record far outside their home city of Tamanrasset. These studios were located away from the daily inspiration that seeps into the instruments, the sounds, the lyrics, the words, the spirit of who they are. But for their third album the collective was determined to change that.
Working with international funding, customs for bringing in the equipment, and the unique considerations in construction for their region, Aboogi (the studio) was completed just before the pandemic and available for the recording of Aboogi (the album) throughout it. Further reflecting this local and international effort are the people Imarhan chose to work with for these songs, hinting at what and who is to come to and from this amazing recording studio.
Off Shelf: Aboogi was recorded at your new studio – built from the ground up in Tamanrasset. Can you talk about how important it felt to be able to record there?
Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane: It is what makes Aboogi unique and so personal, we are very proud of it. It is an album that reflects totally our environment and our culture. You can feel the colors of Tam! It was also less tiring to not travel to record for the first time.
OS: What challenges did you encounter building a studio in Southern Algeria?
IMBA: Yes, many challenges! The ones of the soundproofing, the electricity, the climate, the maintenance of the equipment… but even the customs to get the equipment… and the costs! Also the local credibility. We had to find all the fundings abroad. We have mentioned for a long time we were eager to build the first recording studio in Southern Sahara but we received none of national or local financing.
OS: Aside from being more in your element and environment, logistically was there anything you were able to do on Aboogi that hadn’t been possible on previous records recorded elsewhere?
IMBA: It was very simple for us. We had much more time to think about the arrangements, to rehearse. The time was one precious element, the studio is in our neighborhood and we could come and stay at anytime of the day and the night.
OS: Constructing the studio also happened before the global pandemic had spread. Were you able to spend time in your studio over the past years?
IMBA: Yes and we were lucky about that! We finished to construct the studio right before recording and right before the pandemic. We were also able to record local projects from Tamanrasset. But touring around the world was missing a lot though… we need both.
OS: You have multiple guests on the album, including Gruff Rhys – singing in his native Welsh. What surprised you or excited you to hear with that tongue sung overtop of your music?
IMBA: It feels very natural to collaborate with Gruff. Welsh is beautiful and sounds very smooth with Tamasheq.
OS: You also featured Sulafa Elyas, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, and Mohamed Ag Itlale – for those unfamiliar, how would you introduce these artists?
IMBA: Sulafa Elyas is a breathtaking singer from Khartoum. We met her while touring in Sudan and we played a song with her that worked right away. We wanted to collaborate more with her. Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni is our friend and neighbour, of Tinariwen, he is of course a figure in the Tuareg music. Mohamed Ag Itlale is our dear friend but above all one of the greatest poets of the Tamasheq culture. He sadly passed away last year. We are proud and honored that he took part of this album, it means a lot to us, and it is even more special as we recorded with him at home. It is very symbolic.
OS: Are there other local or regional artist you hope to be able to record either independently or as guests on an Imarhan album? Could you see the studio evolving into a label of you helping to get more music out there?
IMBA: It is our goal, to release a compilation, like a best of the young musicians of Tamanrasset. We want to highlight all the talents who live in our city. It is the most important goal of building Aboogi, it is a studio for everyone in Tam! We also want to invite more international guests so that they enjoy and get inspired by our desert and collaborate with local musicians.
OS: When writing songs, do you consider how in some ways your music may be interpreted as bigger than just you? That you share a role as a musician and as a cultural ambassador?
IMBA: We just write songs. If they help and if they give motivation we are very proud of it. We realise we have a voice that is important to make known our community and our culture around the world.
OS: Having performed your music far and wide at this point, what excites you about seeing international audiences respond to your music?
IMBA: It is very exciting to see the audiences enjoying that much. We feel also a natural and exciting progression as the audiences were first curious and discovering our music, but now a big part of the audiences come and sing our songs at our shows. This is the most beautiful.
OS: Knowing that influence flows both ways, how have you felt your own inspirations evolve as you tour?
IMBA: Yes everyone is influenced all the time by its environment and by the meetings… it is something natural and subtle that we don’t control or understand. It’s involuntary, just mixed well and organically, I guess.