In Studio: Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars
Mike Dronkers / Monday, May 9, 2011 @ 4:33 p.m.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars performed on KHUM at 3pm, Tuesday, May 10th.
As they languished in a squalid refugee camp in Guinea, the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, could not have imagined what the future would hold for them.
In just five whirlwind years, the group has been the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, toured the world to support a critically revered album, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, had their music featured in a major Leonardo DiCaprio film, and shared the stage and studio with Aerosmith, Keith Richards and other international stars.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and have captivated fans across the globe with their uplifting songs and pure energy live shows. The band is a tangible 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 claimed the lives of countless millions. The capital city, Freetown, where all of the musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars lived at the time, was relatively untouched until January 6, 1999, when rebels attacked the city as part of an unthinkably evil campaign they called “Operation Kill Every Living Thing.” The attack on Freetown caused a panicked mass exodus with thousands of civilians fleeing the region and eventually making their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.
Band leader Reuben Koroma and his wife Grace found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone, and when it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with Francis John Langba (aka Franco), another musician in the camp, 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 along with Canadian musician Chris Velan, 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. The war in Sierra Leone came to an end in 2001, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who eventually 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 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 major independent 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 US 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 the world’s third poorest country – this 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 if they truly wanted to establish themselves as more then just a novelty act they needed to prove to the world that they had the talent to produce an album that would stand on its own merits, without a film to prop it up. Luckily, years of touring and performing together had sharpened their skills, and they were overflowing with material, both old and new. At the same time, while band was now in a position to record with better facilities and with top quality producers, it was essential to maintain the intimate spirit and endearingly rough edges captured in the first album.
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 Angelique Kidjo, Michelle Shocked, Jackie Green, Alex Ounsworth, Rickie Lee Jones and many others. The decision to record in New Orleans was partially a practical one: the band was ending a tour there and Berlin liked the facilities and atmosphere at Piety Street Studios in the Bywater neighborhood of the city.
But New Orleans also offered an opportunity to draw on an incredibly rich pool of musicians, and the city’s laid back vibe, spicy food and enthusiastic hospitality reminded the All Stars of being home in Africa. It ended up being an inspired choice of venue, as the residents of New Orleans could relate both to the experience of being displaced from their homes and to the redemptive power of music. Local 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. With an album as fully realized as this one, it’s likely they will go very far indeed.