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Photography: Gkyn Akroyd / @GlynAkroyd

Imarhan

Harvest Sun & Africa Oyé @ District 7/9/18

Another desert storm is seeding on the fertile Saharan winds as the crests of sand dunes are whipped off in meandering trails that will end up who knows where. Following standout Liverpool shows by Tinariwen and Tamikrest in recent years it’s the turn of fellow Tuareg troubadours IMARHAN (‘the ones I care about’ in their native Tamasheq) to return to our shores with their own, searching brand of desert blues. They hail from Algeria, but rather than allowing the mapmakers’ lines in the sand to define and confine them, it’s the unifying context of environment and culture which links them to their Malian mentors and contemporaries to the south.

It is not, in truth, initially a huge crowd that is drinking from the deep well of warm-up DJ Jacques Malchance’s record collection, but a steady stream of people begins to boost the numbers and there is a noticeable air of expectation in District as Imarhan play it cool, waiting until numbers grow sufficiently for their entrance to be warmly greeted. The five-piece roll straight into the trance-inducing rhythms that define the genre. The weaving of American blues and Tuareg folk by guitarists Sadam (Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane) and Abdelkader Ourzig is played out over Haiballah Akhamouk’s traditional percussive beats, and the funk-infused rhythm section of drummer Hicham Bouhasse and bassist Tahar Khaldi and draws an immediate reaction from the crowd, all bobbing heads and shuffling feet from the off.

Where their eponymous first album bears direct comparison to the work of earlier desert blues artists, their recent follow-up Temet (appropriately meaning ‘connections’), draws on the far wider influences absorbed during several years of global touring, moving the genre on a step further as rock, funk and disco are added to an already irresistible mix.

Save for Akhamouk’s sometimes frenzied percussion the band are pictures of concentrated introspection, Sadam and Ourzig occasionally glancing sideways to consult each other with a conspiratorial nod, occasionally looking out into the dancing crowd and smiling at the feedback as their bluesy licks and lightning quick picking are woven into a seamless whole. When Sadam raises his arms and brings his hands together the crowd follow suit, clapping along to the relentless rhythm; the repetitions are hypnotic, the fiery, sinuous solos spinning out in delightful tangents before coalescing once more.

On tracks Azzaman and Imuhagh (both from Temet), metal riffs that Ritchie Blackmore would be proud of, Talking Heads pop-funk grooves and tabla-like calabash provide the worldly embellishments to homespun rhythms. The vocals provide another more traditional aspect to their music. Sadam and Ourzig’s voices are as well matched as their guitar playing and when Akhamouk and Bouhasse join them, the harmonies evoke centuries of flickering caravan campfires, even if their subject matter is more concerned with the current affairs of politics and the heart than with the telling of ancient stories.

They close with Tumast, a funky bass and percussion intro builds to a frantic pace and draws electric applause from a cheering crowd as they leave the stage. Just Sadam and percussionist Akhamouk return for a song that takes things down to the bare bones, a delicately picked rhythm and plaintive vocal harmony giving us an inkling of how this all began, before they are joined by the rest of the band who take us back to the future during the whirling dervish finale of a superbly delivered set.

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