Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars at the Irvine Barclay Theatre
February 13th, 2008
I was one of many who were quite taken with Living Like a Refugee, the debut album by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The disc’s blend of roots reggae, West African rhythms and a smattering of hip hop was not only engaging on a purely musical level but remarkably uplifting and positive considering the horrors of the civil war that the band members survived.
Performed live, the music was richer and fuller. Songs that had a sparse, off-the-cuff feel on the CD benefited from expanded arrangements allowing for more jamming space, more building of momentum and more symbiosis between singers and players. As a result, fresh layers of nuance were revealed. The reggae songs echoed not only the influence of foundational Jamaican artists like Bob Marley and Burning Spear but also such African counterparts as Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly, while the more guitar-driven fropop numbers brimmed with the energies of Ghanian highlife, Kenyan benga and Congolese soukous.
Above all, it was the individual and collective personalities of the band that truly gave the music legs. Front man Reuben M. Koroma handled most of the lead singing, peppering both his vocals and occasional song explanations with insight and humor. Harmony singer Mohammed Kamara, lead guitarist Ashade Pearce and percussionist/deejay/dancer Black Nature all got turns at the mic as well, each expertly topping off the ensemble’s steadily smoking rhythms on their own terms.
Although the audience was comprised largely of seated season subscriber types who obviously weren’t part of the local reggae/African massive, the number of bobbing heads, swaying shoulders and hands clapping along testified to the power of the music onstage. They definitely got it, and those of us who moved off to the side aisles to remain on our feet for the duration seldom had any reason to keep still. Having witnessed the worst sort of cruelty mankind can inflict, this energetic and entertaining group brought out the medicinal best in all.< (Upcoming shows at Southern California's Irvine Barclay Theatre that will be of special interest to world music lovers include appearances by Cape Verde's Lura and the unique global fusions of Pink Martini. For more information, check www.thebarclay.org)