“Upstate Dorset!”, volleying from an audience member towards the stage, is not as flippant a remark as it may sound. After all, the Bristol five-piece, condensed to a quartet tonight in the absence of ailing trombonist Liam Treasure, have tunes that are inspired by hills in the west country, scene of Hovis ads no less, that impart a mild resonance of the British brass band tradition. Yet the flavour of American hip-hop edged marching ensembles is also discernible in the music. It would do a disservice to Dakhla to reduce them to such a binary reference though. The two sets the band performs at this cosy basement just around the corner from the more well-known Vortex in Dalston make the point that it is channeling a whole range of vocabularies through choppy, punchy well-crafted original compositions that meet with a fair deal of ‘head nodding’, as is the norm in the world of MCs, as well as focused listening.
With a setlist drawn largely from their current album Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla, Dakhla presents a clearly defined aesthetic and character from the off. Stage left is baritone saxophonist Charlotte Ostafew, small frame practically dwarfed by the ship’s funnel of an instrument, while alto saxophonist Sophie Stockham and trumpeter Pete Judge huddle together stage right with drummer Matt Brown in the centre, and this layout gives the impression that the two smaller horns form a mini section at the opposite end of the spectrum to their bigger, heavier kin. On a song such as ‘Order Of The Elephant’ the rich dynamic range really comes into its own as Ostafew’s concise, bluesy bass lines are a raucous, throaty rasp to the airier, more feathery strains of the trumpet and alto.
Generally speaking the extended solo is not the raison d’etre of the music, and the potent, curt nature of the riffing makes the shorter improvisations effective. In any case so much of the appeal and energy of the songs lies in the criss-crossing of phrases and slaloming counterpoint created by the three-horn frontline that an overt display of virtuosity would very possibly upset the fine balance of a group that has a clear dance music sensibility as well as a commitment to a high standard of playing. ‘The Big Red’ is a beautifully doleful, fluttering ballad which marks a contrast to some of the more upbeat material, while ‘Where’s The One’ is a fierce rolling groove that hinges on the ability of the whole band to respond with split-second spontaneity to Brown’s cat and mouse game with downbeat and pause.
Although Dakhla have a lower profile than the likes of Youngblood and Hot 8 they are still an important part of the wave of modern groups that draw on the brass band tradition in some way. Cleverly integrated into their melodies and rhythms are elements of Balkan music, funk, afrobeat and ska, but, crucially, they are all directed towards a very personal sound that is both fully uplifting and hard hitting.