Review by Marco Villalobos
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars Irvine Barclay Theatre / Cheng Hall Febuary 13, 2008
Better Than: Heidi Klum giving a goodbye hug to some soon-forgotten designer on a fresh Wednesday night episode of Project Runway.
Africa is a beautiful planet full of melody and grace so articulate that with its sensibility, even the pain of war can be transformed into an expression of peace. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are in the business of doing just that.
By now you’ve likely heard of the award-winning film that documents the band’s start in the refugee camps that were their homes during the harshest year’s of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. To put it simply, the All Stars make a music of survival. So seeing them perform that music in an assigned-seating theatre provides a kind of irony akin to sinking into a Lazy Boy recliner to play fantasy football against a corpse while buried six feet beneath the 50 yard line of a stadium football field atop which the Super Bowl is taking place.
Everyone you might normally catch dancing at an All Stars show— fellow All Stars, ushers, security guards, students, music aficionados, me, and that one pink-complected white guy whose salt-and-pepper bangs fall over his hot sweaty forehead as he kicks his legs out to the time of another song altogether— were by and large relegated to bopping in our seats until prompted up off our ends by Black Nature, the group’s rapper, conga player, and youngest member. Only then did most people in attendance get up and move. There was hollering and screaming as the audience got more than a little loose to the Mandingo and English sung All Star message: “Kele Mani,” or “Let us be united to stop war.”
The message was repeated often in choruses like “Smile,” and “Do good in your community,” so that for a moment it sounded like a post-Barak rally love fest being lifted and carried in rolling harmony on the delicate necks of three crisp guitars. Still, the message was contagious, a syncopation that held its audience gently and swayed them. It was the kind of rhythm that made me suspicious of anyone not moving along to it.
“African music will make you exercise without even knowing it—trust me, try it!” said Reuben M. Koroma, the group’s lead singer.
He danced softly, installing himself into spaces between drumbeats, smiling at his dexterity against the audience’s sense of time. At intervals he’d change places with any other front person. Black Nature, the young M.C. behind the congas would dash out and rile women audience members by incrementally ticking his hips in a subtle pop lock.
Ms. Efuah Grace gave up her maracas, let each instrument except the drums fall out of the conversation and replaced each of their voices with the movement of her arms and legs. Each band member’s dance, like their musical sound and lyrics, provided dynamic proof of the miraculous ability to endure and excel beyond circumstances that many audience members can only begin to imagine.
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Critic's Notebook Personal Bias: The polyrhythmic expression of West African music is my most respected of human innovations. Anybody not in accordance is imprisoned in their own ego, cannot live well with other people and, to roughly quote Joost A. M. Meerloo, has lost the tune of life.
Random Detail: Yes, Angelina Jolie helped back the Refugee All Stars documentary film. No, she did not succeed in adopting any band members. By the way: The band’s next stop is Santa Barbara. Make a weekend of it.