Worries that The Hamilton’s space would prove insufficiently danceable for the hundred-or-so who turned up to see Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars on Tuesday night proved unfounded. “African music,” frontman Reuben Koroma beamed mid-set, “is made for dancing.” The space’s dinner-theater layout could only hold back that pressure for so long. By the midpoint of their two-hour set, dancers had leaked into the Hamilton’s seams and started getting to know each other.
Following an opening 40 minutes from local afrobeatniks* Elikeh that was somehow both lively and subdued, the SLRAS-es took the stage. (*I know Elikeh are not solely afrobeat, but couldn’t resist that fake word. Now stop interrupting me.)
The All-Stars’ austere black and white shirts looked like institutional garb. It was at once a uniform linking the bandmates and a reminder of the band’s displaced origins. The music may be made for dancing, but it’s not all escapism. This is a talented group of players who know better than most successful humans how lucky they are to be doing what they’re doing. And they’re equally committed to making you dance and making you ponder.
If you haven’t read about these fellas or seen the documentary about them, you might be excused for going light on the ponder for a couple hours. Koroma’s enthusiasm is a catching thing, and sonically, this ain’t ponderous stuff. The music just beams. The set was equal parts reggae, afrobeat, and bubu music, an energetic rock-like thing born in Sierra Leone that Koroma said has been known to keep exhausted people walking for miles.
But even still, much of the time they’re singing about loss and hunger. And twice between songs, Koroma stopped to speak at some length. The first time he recalled seeing the news that Charles Taylor had been convicted of war crimes. (“A wicked man has no place to hide,” was the refrain of the following tune.) The second was to note the importance of the UN’s World Food Program and remind us of the ongoing drought in west Africa. (You can donate $10 by texting AID BFD to 27722, you privileged city-dwelling internet-guzzling so-and-sos.) They followed that with “Big Fat Dog,” from their new record Radio Salone.
The hurt and sadness evoked in those moments, and in certain parts of certain songs as well, is grist for the musical mill. And most of the time, they’re grinding it into barely bridled joy, and then distilling that into an aural intoxicant potent enough that I actually danced. Don’t tell my friends and neighbors, but god help me I attempted to move rhythmically in front of people. It would take paralysis or deafness or the kind of abject depression reserved for pharmaceutical commercials to resist dancing to this music.
And they just kept playing! They got a wave of dancers in the strip of open floor between tables and stage, linked hands to shoulders in a line that had essentially nowhere to go. They got another group who’d found open space near the back to form a line of their own. They paused, and all those people sat down, and then they played another hour that drew people back to their feet. By the time they quit the stage, promising to autograph CDs for folks, about a third of the crowd had had their fill and drifted to the doors. But the rest begged, for an uncomfortably long time, for one more song.
And when it did come, the encore was well worth it. “Soda Soap,” off the first record, is a bubbling shout-along thing that had Buky, my concert companion and certified Friend of BYT, jumping up and down in excited circles as soon as Koroma announced it. (She was probably the most hardcore SLRAS fan in the room save the friends and relations down front to whom the band dedicated a couple songs.) In that raucous conclusion, with one band member’s sister-in-law throwing dollar bills at each man in turn, it was almost possible to forgive yourself for eating sushi while war-ravaged men sang about empty African bellies.