For what seemed like the next seventeen hours or so, the Refugee All Stars kicked out grooves that called my attention to the interconnectedness of us all and the sheer power of music itself. The show was a reminder of just how indebted we in the New World are to the musical innovations of the Dark Continent. While our European forebearers were decently skilled at melody and harmony, Africa gave us the gift of rhythm. And it’s this rhythm that today makes American popular music—from the hip-hop and jazz styles of the United States to the chichas, cumbias, and Brasilieras of the Latin American countries—compelling. The Refugee All Stars laid elements of all of those different genres out in front of us and traded instruments and microphones in a manner that seemed less choreographed and more driven by the immediate feelings of the performers, who exuded tremendous delight as they shimmied and caterwauled to an audience that was full of the spirit and ready to dance from the moment that the band walked into the Roxy.
They played Western instruments (and the use of electric guitars, synthesizers, and drum kits were a good reminder that, for all we owe to Africa, musical inspiration is circular rather than one-sided), but the instruments weren’t at the heart of the music. These guys were tapping into an eternal compulsion, and it would have been served by whatever tools of the trade they happened to have on hand. This was illustrated in the middle of their set as the Refugee Allstars dropped their their guitars and picked up traditional instruments that gave us a taste of the place from whence this music came.
The band stopped periodically, every eight to ten minutes or so, in order to switch gears and present a different groove. But it seemed like they were only doing that for us in the audience. I got the sense that, if we hadn’t been present, they would’ve just locked into a single rhythm and continued it for days, hopping and smiling and communing with each other the whole time.