Often, a significant event occurs that inspires a musician to put pen to paper or pick to pickguard. After some time, he or she will attempt to convey significant meaning to others through melody, harmony, or rhythm, resulting in a powerful onstage presence.
But, what if a horrible experience affected an entire group of musicians at the same time, in similar ways? They would have close ties to each other, and the music of this band would be unified as one in order to persevere and survive.
These very circumstances have fallen upon Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.
In the film Blood Diamond, director Edward Zwick recounts the abhorrent violence that occurred in Africa’s Sierra Leone over a certain rare type of diamond. The atrocities committed in this small, coastal, West African country should be remembered by citizens of all nations, but for the band, the haunting memory actually explains their history and existence.
Along with thousands of others swept from their homes in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1999, the six core band members found temporary shelter at a refugee camp in the neighboring country of Guinea. Here, Ruben, Franco, Grace, Arahim, Black Nature and Mohammed entertained fellow refugees with their music. Unfortunately, this camp would soon be engulfed in more terror — the Guinean government attacked the camps on suspicions that rebel groups were using the area to attempt a coup d’Çtat.
The band relocated once again to a new camp, deep into the forests of Guinea. Here, two documentary filmmakers discovered the band while researching West African music. The cinematographers followed the band for three years, traveling with Canadian singer/songwriter, Chris Velan, as their music consultant. While on the voyage home, their line-up was made permanent, and the group would soon find their way into the studio for the very first time. The return to Freetown was bittersweet for the band, as many structures and much of their neighborhood had been destroyed. However, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were able to reunite with several close friends who inspired the group with their own stories of survival.
With help from a Canadian refugee aid organization, the band was given a rusted PA speaker and worn electric guitars that would add to the dynamic of their sound. The music on their debut album Livin’ Like a Refugee (produced by Chris Velan) is inspired by traditional West African music from centuries before, melded with reggae and hip-hop from the present day, presenting a sound that cannot be defined in one word. It bridges many musical boundaries, and the general tone of the record uplifts the listener with its positive vibes. Few minor chords are struck on the album, and the songs have a relaxed, almost trance-like flow. All the while, the key message within the music involves overcoming the hardships in life.
After all of their difficulties and travels, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have come a tremendous distance to grace Champaign, Ill. with their presence. With worldwide appearances at Bonnaroo (2006), the Montreal Jazz Festival and even the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, I hope this article gives everyone fair warning: see this world-famous act perform while you can – it’s just a five minute walk away from the downtown bus terminal. I’m sure the spacious dance floor at the Highdive will be bumpin’ and groovin’ to the smooth tribal vibrations of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars on Friday night.
Don’t miss Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars at the Highdive on Friday, August 31. Doors open at 7 p.m., and Mhondoro Rhythm Success will be opening the show from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance.