Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars in Bellingham
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
Saturday May 14, 2011
$18 adv / $20 dos
Sitting in a dusty refugee camp in Guinea in 2004, Reuben M. Koroma, the founder of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, could not have imagined what the near future would hold for him and the members of his band. In just six whirlwind years, the group has gone from being unknown musicians languishing in various refugee camps to being the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, touring the world to support a critically revered album, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and sharing the stage and studio with Aerosmith and other international stars. Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and enflamed the passions of fans across the globe with their uplifting songs of hope, faith and joy. The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact.
Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. One particularly odious event took place on January 6, 1999, when rebels attacked the city as part of an unthinkably evil campaign they called "Operation Kill Every Living Thing." This attack on Freetown caused a panicked mass exodus with thousands of civilians fleeing the region. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.
Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. Even the refugee camps were not safe havens, however, as they were attacked by the Guinean military and civilian militias who believed the camps were being used as staging ground for cross border attacks by the Sierra Leonean rebels. Eventually, Reuben, Grace and Franco ended up in the more stable Sembakounya Refugee Camp near the remote town of Dabola, and there they put the call out for musicians to audition to form a band. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars were born.
American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. Eventually, the war in Sierra Leone came to an end, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who joined the band's rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown's ghettos that Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars recorded the tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, which was released on the label Anti in 2006.
The resulting film that documented this moving saga, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, was a critical success, and introduced the world to the personalities and dramatic stories behind the band, not to mention their instantly appealing music. "As harrowing as these personal tales may be," wrote The New York Times, "the music buoying them is uplifting." Newsweek raved, "It's as easy to fall in love with these guys as it was with the Buena Vista Social Club."
The movie, album and eventual U.S. tours helped expand their following, and soon the band found itself playing in front of enraptured audiences of tens of thousands at New York's Central Park SummerStage, Japan's Fuji Rock Festival and the revered Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. They appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, contributed a song to the Blood Diamond film soundtrack, participated in the U2 tribute album In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2, and earned praise and backing from Sir Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie and others inspired by their life-affirming story and captivating music. In one of the most surreal moments of their climb to fame, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars opened for Aerosmith at the 12,000 capacity Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Despite their success, back home in Sierra Leone it was becoming clear that even though the war was over, there were still difficult challenges to overcome in the world's third poorest country. Now living back in Freetown, the band was able to afford luxuries such as cement walls and refrigerators, but they were still faced with the daily struggles shared by most of their countrymen.
In the past year alone, there have been four deaths in the extended band family, including the sudden passing of their bass player Mallam. A beloved original member of the band, Mallam had written the first bass lines to their hit songs "Soda Soap" and "Weapon Conflict" in the refugee camp with Koroma. Always cheery and smiling, Mallam was known as the honorary "mayor" of the Magazine Wharf slum where he made a living selling rice whisky and palm wine. While his death at 49 may seem premature to people in the west, in Sierra Leone it is actually the average life expectancy, an unforgiving side effect of poverty, war and disease.
The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.
"It's been a long struggle out of the war, out of miserable conditions," notes Koroma, "So now we are trying to develop ourselves as a band and be based in our country. We are really moving towards finding ways of elevating ourselves somehow. But we do not just think about ourselves alone, we try to bring out sensitive issues that are affecting the world. It is all of our responsibility that the masses are suffering. We bring our positive messages into the world so we can expect a positive change in the world. And, most importantly, bring about peace."
For their second album, the members of the All Stars knew that they needed to prove to the world that they had the talent to produce an album that would rise above their unique story and stand on its own musical merits. After years of touring and performing together the band was overflowing with material, both old and new. While they were now in a position to record with better facilities and with top quality producers, the band was determined to maintain the intimate spirit and raw soul of Living Like A Refugee.
After recording some songs and demos in Sierra Leone, the group went to New Orleans, Louisiana to work on the album with veteran producer Steve Berlin, a member of Los Lobos who has produced for Angélique Kidjo, Michelle Shocked, Jackie Green, Alex Ounsworth, Ozomatli, Rickie Lee Jones and many others. With music coursing through it's streets, the Big Easy's laid back vibe, spicy food and enthusiastic hospitality reminded the All Stars of being home in Freetown. The residents of New Orleans in turn could relate both to the All Stars experience of being displaced from their homes and to the important role music plays in healing spiritual and emotional wounds and bringing communities together. New Orleans ended up being an inspired choice for the recording and musicians such as Troy "Trombone Shorty" Edwards, Washboard Chaz and Bonerama lent their talents to a number of tracks, giving a unique flavor to the album.
The result is Rise & Shine, a masterful collection of songs that reflects how much Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have grown since their early days jamming around campfires in isolated refugee camps. The title of the album reflects the band's desire to remain positive in the face of struggle, always greeting a new day with a spirit of excitement over what the future holds. Given how far they've come in just a few short years, they have reason to be optimistic. If they could not have imagined five years ago where they would be today, there's no telling where they will be five years down the road.
208 W Holly Street
Bellingham, WA 98225