Photograph by Jane Richey
Peace Brigade: Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars bring their high-energy show and upbeat message to the Rio Theatre this Tuesday. A documentary on the band screens tonight at UCSC.
Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars bring their high-energy show and upbeat message to Santa Cruz's Rio Theatre.
By Traci Hukill
How about a German word for the mingling of awe and shame one feels in the face of humans who have suffered terribly and yet emerged joyous and loving? Such people seem almost saintly in their ability to elevate the consciousness of everyone around them beyond the usual array of petty cares. The members of Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars seem like just these sorts of people. In a documentary showing tonight, and in a Tuesday concert at the Rio, Santa Cruzans will have a chance to see for themselves just how thoroughly this crew has rejected the shit sandwich handed them by history and instead set out a feast of love, happiness and booty-shaking for all to enjoy.
The story begins in 1991, when rebels launched a bloody campaign in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. The violence was nightmarish; the rebels' brutal trademark was amputating the limbs of civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to refugee camps in neighboring Guinea, including musicians Reuben Koroma, Efuah Grace and Francis (Franco) Lamgba. In the camps, the three met up and formed a band that proved wildly popular with the other residents. Rudimentary instruments gave way to old electric guitars and an amp, and eventually the band grew to include percussionists Abdulrahim Kamara and Mohamed Bangura, both of whom had fallen victim to the rebels' machetes. Black Nature, a teenaged orphan, started rapping with the group. Soon the band was putting on sizable shows in the camps. Its sound was almost impossibly sunny, in the way West African high-life music often is, with a dose of reggae, some rap a la Black Nature and a resolutely positive message of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Finally, the war ended and the time came to return home to Freetown, Sierra Leone's damaged capital. In an interview last week Koroma, who arrived in the States with the band on Jan. 22, said it was tough going at first.
"When I returned to Sierra Leone it was a bit difficult to even locate some of my siblings and some of the old friends, because it's like everybody was displaced," he said. "So it took some time to get information about them and it took some time to get reunited with them. When we returned, we are like strangers in our own land."
In Freetown, Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars recorded an album, working with members of Koroma's old band, the Emperors (the current nine-member touring lineup contains members of both bands). Living Like a Refugee is good on disc but it's even better live, when the band's energy infuses the crowd.
As for his home country, Koroma says things are looking up. Power has been restored in Freetown and a newly elected administration is preparing to bring electricity to the provinces.
Meanwhile, the band's commitment to reconciliation seems to go for the whole country. Sierra Leone stands as the rare post-civil war success story. A long disarmament and re-education campaign brought former rebels, many of them children and teenagers, back into society's fold.
"They are even working for people, some of them are electricians, some are drivers," Koroma says. "It's like they have been integrated into society."
SIERRA LEONE'S REFUGEE ALLSTARS, a documentary by Banker White and Zach Niles, shows Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 7:15pm at the UCSC Media Theatre. Free admission. The band SIERRA LEONE'S REFUGEE ALLSTARS perform Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20-$30; 831.459.2159 or santacruztickets.com.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.