Imarhan: Philharmonic Music Room, Liverpool

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As Imarhan fuse the traditions of West Africa with the sounds of modern America, Getintothis’ Paul Higham finds a message of optimism amid their infectiously transcendental grooves.

There’s a funny little game you can play with Google Translate. Enter a phrase and translate it into another language, translate it back into the original language and repeat. After a few times the original phrase has been sufficiently distorted, often to the point where any meaningful comparison to the original phrase has become strained.

So can it be with music. Much of the music of the American south – blues, gospel soul and jazz – traces its lineage back to Africa. Out of this, and through its bastard son called rock n roll, was born much of the music that we love and cherish today.

Cultural traditions in Africa seem harder to break down. Musical heritage and traditions are passed down through the generations and are rightly revered and celebrated. Where things change and evolve the pace is often slow and incremental.

With Imarhan it it feels immediately different. Their music is so informed by America that it feels as if it has progressed full circle. The sounds of Africa, filtered through an American lens have returned home and on their return have created something new and exciting. Just as with Google Translate, we now have an altogether different sound.

Imarhan featured in our Album Club – check out more here

The willingness to eschew cultural convention and tradition is apparent from the off. With the exception of one head scarf, traditional dress is replaced by Western fashions and the five-piece enter the stage casually revealing boy-band good looks and Premier League haircuts.

Opening with a quieter song (the sole outing for an acoustic guitar all evening) and built around vocal harmonies, initial fears that the boy band aesthetics would over-inform the music were quickly and gratefully allayed. The slightly clinical and clean-cut opening soon gave way to a riotous celebration of polyrhythmic psychedelic blues, laced with funk influences and hypnotic melodies which swirled in near endless loops of transcendentally repetitive grooves. This was Tuareg but not as we knew it.

If the weekend started with a P-Funk party, then Imarhan seemed determined to keep it going for as long as possible. It truly was a joyously uplifting occasion for a band that were able to maintain a tight togetherness without sacrificing the lightness of touch that gave what was undoubtedly a sharply honed and well-practised set an air of exuberant spontaneity.

Melding the sound were dual rotating percussionists playing between them a traditional West African drum and an unusual upturned dome-shaped drum that was used to eke out a dextrous array of rhythms of varying pitch, timbre, and resonance. This not only underpinned the music, providing the framework for flamboyant fret-work, but also drove it along with a vim and spirit that proved infectious.

Indeed the combination of rhythmic dynamism and hypnotic guitar wig-outs left the audience firmly in the palm of the bands’ collective hands. With seemingly little effort on Imarhan‘s part a spontaneous eruption of barely restrained dancing broke out amid a sea of smiling faces, proving that the best atmospheres are ones that happen naturally free from unnecessary contrivance.

Although barely half-full, there was a real sense of energy rebounding from stage to front-of-house and back again, with little lost in translation. Everyone understood. It was one of those nights. And where too often encores are little more than a part of overall show, pre-determined on neatly printed out set-lists tonight felt different.

Rarely any more are they demanded with such vigour and energy, and as the band returned to the thunderous sound of foot-stamping and clapping, you could tell they got it too. It was written all over their faces. Barely disguised joy that threatened to overwhelm.

The power of music to uplift, enhance and send you on your way with a spring in your step ready to conquer whatever challenge you might face was all in evidence tonight. In a world low on optimism we need more bands like Imarhan.

Pictures by Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody.

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