SOJA brings love to The Westcott Theater a day early

The Washington, D.C.-based reggae act played a nearly-two hour intimate set for a surprisingly adoring crowd.

SOJA played a full house of Syracuse's reggae lovers into an all-night groove with their longing melodies, forceful rhythms and intricate lyrics about unity, love and freedom on Sunday night. Considering that, the show became a fitting date setting for all who spent Valentine's Day Eve at The Wescott Theater. 

SOJA (Soldiers of Jah Army, Jah is short for Yehova in the Rastafari Movement) is a five-piece group of childhood friends who met throughout grade school (their Westcott show lineup also featuring Hellman Escorcia on saxophone and Rafael Rodriguez on trumpet). Those tight-knit roots undoubtedly helped them convey the reggae/Jamaican island spirit through musical unity. There were no extraneous solos or cliche attempts by any of the band members to stand out during their set. The night was simply five friends cooperating to make smooth transitions between slow, longing, yet powerful tunes like "You and Me" and "You Don't Know Me" to upbeat numbers with powerful drum beats like the encore, "Rest of My Life." 

SOJA's set included memorable tracks spanning their eight-album and EP-repertoire.  The fact that Syracuse is surprisingly filled with high school and college Rasta-loving students who chanted SOJA's repertoire only added to the show's intimacy. The group got the crowd moving right from the start simply with an instrumental mix. "All right, we're gonna start. You guys ready?" After vocalist/guitarist Jacob Hemphill asked, the Westcott crowd began and carried it throughout the night with energetic dance movements and right arms waving rhythmically in the air. All signs showed they were truly feeling the reggae mood.  

The show’s highlights included the upbeat, rhythmic love song "Sorry" that got both couples and singles in the dancing mood. There were also the activism-filled pieces, including "Rasta Courage," "Revolution Cry"  and "Open My Eyes."  Given the next day’s holiday, the love song "I Don't Wanna Wait" seemed to be the climatic piece the audience had been waiting for all night. The crowd, peppered with people wearing colorful Rasta-Jamaican style hats or dreadlocks, moved in unison to the guitar and base riffs and accentuated off-beat drumming. 

Perhaps one of the most heartfelt moments of the evening was Hemphill's three-minute rapped speech about Haiti in the midst of "Everything Changes." The vocalist conveyed the band's dedication to living in the tradition of the Rastafari Movement:

"I realized that we're all talking about how we believe in karma. But karma actually is a real thing, what goes around does come around whether you believe it or not, it's true… [What you do] goes around and around in the world, it's a circle...So I look at Haiti the same way: oh shit, anything we do with them is going to come back directly at us because that's how it all works, it's a circle...I started to look at how I look at myself, and the first thing I found is that we see ourselves in borders...the truth is, there's only one real border in the world and it's very simple. It's just like a circle, and that's the earth, that's us."

The crowd summoned SOJA back on stage for their encore and, impressed with their enthusiasm, Hemphill adlibbed the lyrics. "If I could spend the rest of my life with my Syracuse," as the instruments paused for the crowd's heartfelt rendition of the next lyric, "I would do it over and over again." All Hemphill could say was, "nice." The nearly set ended with a forceful drum solo giving the final punch to mark the energetic, spiritual night. For one night at least, The Westcott Theater was the unitary circle Hemphill had mentioned.

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