The young Touareg band are striking out from under Tinariwen’s shadow and doing their own thing. Andy Morgan reports
Back in 2010, I stayed with Tinariwen’s bassist Eyadou Ag Leche at his home in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria. When I arrived a bunch of youths were rehearsing with their guitars in one of the bedrooms. As soon as we entered they stopped and left. They seemed shy but self-reliant and clearly on a mission. One of them, Iyad Ag Ibrahim, aka ‘Sadam’, was a cousin of Eyadou.
Now that band of reticent teenagers have become the rising stars of Touareg music. They call themselves Imarhan, which means ‘The Closest Ones’ in the Touareg language of Tamashek. It’s stronger than the word imidiwan, which often crops up in modern Tamashek lyrics and simply means ‘Friends’ or ‘Companions’. Your imarhan are your most intimate soul-buddies, bar none.
These particular imarhan first got together in 2006. They were childhood friends who grew up in Tamanrasset. “I’ve always lived there,” says Sadam. “Same neighbourhood [Sersouf], same school, always the same.” Considering the recent history of the Touareg, that’s significant. Sadam and his friends aren’t old ishumar rebels from the ‘home country’ in northern Mali, like Tinariwen. They’re a new generation, born ‘in exile’. Their music is different. So are their clothes, their ideas, their outlook, even the slang they use.
Journalists are already calling them ‘the sons of Tinariwen.’ “I don’t like the term that much,” Sadam tells me, “because I think that our own work, our research, have made us different. They’ve led us to more of a mix, something a bit more modern. We’ve still kept the Touareg touch of the ishumar, but we’re open to the world. We’ve searched for our own style.”
Looks alone offer a stark demarcation: Imarhan’s woollen beanies, combat trousers and stoner mini-dreads are a far cry from the traditional robes of Tinariwen. Sadam, who’s recently been touring with Tinariwen, standing in for the semi-retired Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, doesn’t mind those majestic traditional threads. He just feels a Touareg should be allowed to wear what he or she wants.
But Tinariwen were still the teachers. Sadam and his fellow band members – Tahar Ag Kaddor, Hicham Ag Boubas, Kada Ag Chanani, Hachim Ag Abdelkader and Habibalah Ag Azouz – cut their teeth on the first two Tinariwen albums, as well as the traditional sounds of the Touareg tindé (drum) and tazaghmat (flute) and desert sounds from further afield. “Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib] is like the father of all this music,” Sadam says. “He’s very important. So, yes, ‘the sons of Ibrahim’… why not!?”
But it’s Sadam’s uncle who’s had the most direct input into Imarhan’s sound. “Eyadou has guided me since I was small,” Sadam says. The Tinariwen bassist also produced Imarhan, their forthcoming debut. A Touareg musician producing other Touareg musicians! That’s a big leap forward, long overdue.
But what’s the message? “I think you have to look for every solution before taking up arms,” Sadam tells me. “The Touareg are often taking up arms, but I don’t think it brings the result that people hope for. Everybody must go to school, because there aren’t enough well-educated leaders among the Touareg.”
And an independent Touareg state? “Even if they give independence to the Touareg, there aren’t enough well-educated administrators to manage all that independence.”
DATES Imarhan will play London and Brighton on March 10 & 11