Singing for peace: Once the subject of a documentary, they're now the stars of their own show.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars find a little peace
By Paul Davis
THROUGHOUT the history of pop and rock music, there have been many Westerners who aggressively flirted with the words and sentiments of revolution, donned in pop-couture guerrilla-fighter outfits and spouting ill-informed agitprop. Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have little place for that sort of faux-insurgency posturing—they're just grateful to find a little peace.
The All Stars are indeed refugees from Sierra Leone, the West African nation torn by a bloody civil war from 1992 until 2002. When rebels took the nation's capital of Freetown in a brutal coup in 1999, there was a mass exodus of the people living in what had been, until then, a relatively placid city. Among those refugees were musicians Reuben Koroma and Francis Langba, who met in a violent camp. Amid the poor living conditions, they began to enlist other refugee musicians to perform music on rusted-out, nearly destroyed old instruments and equipment provided by a Canadian refugee aid organization.
The group rose to international prominence with the release of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, a 2006 documentary directed by Zach Niles and Banker White that followed the musicians from the Guinea refugee camp in which they formed, through the recording sessions that comprised their debut album, all the way to their Sierra Leone homecoming. An incredible, affecting tale that bridges the atrocities of war and the revelatory potential of musical uplift, the film chronicled the group's improbable path from shattered refugees of a brutal civil war to earning acolytes like Keith Richards and Paul McCartney.
The documentary has provided a lifeline for the group, granting them a notoriety that has, rather predictably, been often compared to that of Buena Vista Social Club. For Koroma, the effusive worldwide reception of their debut record Living Like a Refugee is an experience a world removed from the desolation of the refugee camps, for which he is appreciative. "We are grateful to the people who made the documentary—it was like a door opened to us," he says. "Most of the places we go to play, people learned about us from the documentary. The reaction after every performance is really positive—people say, 'Thank you for coming, it was really amazing.'"
The All Stars are in the midst of a mammoth summer tour of the United States and Europe, but Koroma will be returning to the home from which he was driven in Sierra Leone—Freetown—in early July. The musician, who now shuttles back and forth between there and the United States, observes that his hometown still bears scars from the civil war, though there is much cause for hope. "The situation there is much better," says Koroma, "it's really, really calm. The only problem is all the destruction from the 12 years of civil war."
One source of hope, and a constant well of musical inspiration for Koroma and the All Stars, is the musical resurgence that has sprung up in Sierra Leone since the war ended. The resulting cultural and musical rebirth is perhaps one of the most vital signs of life and hope in a war-torn nation. "I think that's one of the differences between then and now," Koroma says. "It's a musical renaissance taking place in Sierra Leone. Most of the youth, because of unemployment, play music hoping to get work. Sierra Leone in general is a music-loving country. The people of Sierra Leone appreciate the music—they dance to it, they buy the records and they go to the concerts."
Koroma realizes that young musicians with stars in their eyes are not going to rebuild the nation alone. "The city's dark—no electricity. Most of the youths are unemployed," he notes. Still, it is this reality that provides the group with its impetus to bring its message and historical heft to the world, bringing the culture of their beleaguered home to a receptive audience that is all too often unaware of the atrocities. But despite all that Koroma has endured, and the continued struggles of the people of Sierra Leone, the music of the Refugee All Stars looks forward, not backward, in sheer exultation. There is cause to celebrate—after all, he emphasizes, despite the hardships, "there is peace."
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars perform on Thursday (June 21) at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20. There will be a free screening at the Rio Theatre of the documentary 'Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars' on Wednesday (June 20) at 7:30pm. (831.423.8209).
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