06 July 2007 (gig)
08 July 2007
Next time you hear some cosseted indie rock band whine about what a terrible day they've had, give them a clip round the ear and politely suggest they attend a performance by Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. They met in a refugee camp in Guinea after their country became embroiled in a decade-long, diamond-fuelled civil war. Two of the band’s members had limbs forcibly amputated, while one was made to watch RUF rebels execute his entire family. Puts things in perspective, doesn't it?
You might have expected the sight of so much atrocity, starvation and squalor to have soured their outlook, but the All Stars produce the kind of music that inevitably has you groping for clichés about triumph in the face of adversity and the unvanquishable human spirit. It's mawkishly hackneyed, I know, but how else to describe a sound so thrillingly, joyously sensual emerging from an arena of such unfathomable cruelties?
Not that it’s escapism they’re offering. Their songs tackle the realities of their homeland’s humanitarian crises even as they offer infectiously danceable rhythms. The lyrics touch on the arms trade, malaria, AIDS – heck, even global warming gets a mention. But the topicality never detracts from the enjoyment.
"Your entertainment is our obligation," intones beaming frontman Reuben Koroma, and oblige us they do, with over ninety minutes of sublime, reggae-inflected Afropop, rapping interludes provided by their youthful but gravel-voiced MC, Black Nature. The standout track is 'Soda Soap', an effortlessly catchy number about personal hygiene, but they’re equally captivating when they discard their guitars in favour of traditional West African percussion instruments, and start showing us their dance moves. It’s less like a gig than an almighty party.
The result is an unforgettably uplifting evening, and a salutary reminder that there's a more to contemporary music than the navel-gazing, loud-quiet-loud guitar template that dominates the radio.