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Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars

Garbage to the Showglass

by James M. Manheim

From the November, 2006 issue

The musicians who make up Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars all knew each other in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown. But they never played together until they met again in the Sembakounya Refugee Camp, at the end of Sierra Leone's ruinous civil war. They hung a sign reading "The Place to Be" outside a makeshift bar, styled themselves the Refugee All Stars, and held forth, using battered guitars and a generator-powered amplifier. As for the events that befell them in the intervening years - as Merle Haggard said of his experiences at San Quentin prison, you'll sleep better if I skip them. But what's happened since the musicians were recorded in the camp, by two aspiring young documentarians, is quite a story in itself.

West African music in English is rarer than it once was, but the litany of privations the filmmakers heard from the All Stars was in that language, perhaps because Sierra Leoneans of various ethnic groups were thrown together in the remote camp. "I just took all the problems, the suffering of the people, and make a song of it," says group leader Reuben M. Koroma in a spoken introduction to the song "Living like a Refugee." Codirector Zach Niles showed the footage to his boss, high-powered San Francisco ticket broker Shelley Lazar; Lazar buttonholed film producer Steve Bing, actor Cameron Crowe, and humanitarian organizer Bob Geldof at Mick Jagger's sixtieth birthday party in Prague. Soon various other entertainment moguls, including Paul McCartney, also wanted in. They helped finance production of the documentary, which made the rounds of independent theaters in 2005.

Enter another phalanx of the powerful, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who smoothed the All Stars' entry into the United States - no easy thing for a group of musicians with no identification, no bank account, no electronic footprints of any kind. In the spring of this year the Refugee All Stars found themselves performing on a sidewalk at

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Austin's SXSW festival and then watching as San Francisco agent Mike Kappus negotiated a six-figure publishing deal on their behalf, and then an album. "Biggie biggie time, I say!" Koroma observed drily in a tune on that album, "Garbage to the Showglass."

The Refugees went on to perform at Tennessee's massive Bonnaroo festival, with new songs coming quickly. "Some are vampires," they warned, as the usual gang of thieves began to sap their country's fragile renewal. "Some are hooligans. Some are kleptomaniacs. Some are idolaters." But "Smile," they sing. "We thinking about some positive changes." The music of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars is an infectious mix of danceability, humor, and hard-won idealism.

The idealism is put into songs with a reggae beat. The Jamaican style forms a kind of musical lingua franca in West Africa, and the Refugee All Stars begin where Bob Marley left off. They sing in English, in Krio (a barely recognizable West African English), and in one or more African languages. The reggae beats and the idealistic sentiments go with the English language; the more local tunes are in a style Koroma calls "goombay," one of those densely significant genre terms that are scattered across the African diaspora. It's a cousin to West Africa's highlife and juju dance styles, but the All Stars perform a very rootsy version, without layers of electronics.

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars come to the Ark Thursday, November 2.

[Review published November 2006]     (end of article)


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