Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
"When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem a suffer."
– Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Living Like a Refugee
Every day, the news is full of reports from the troubled spots of the world. Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and a multitude of other countries form a ever-shifting kaleidoscope of human tragedy. Impressions sketchily are formed in the imagination of places where violence and death are a familiar part of the waking, breathing reality of the populace. Land mines, roadside bombs, and machetes add to the statistics of chaos and suffering. Sheer repetition renders the horror of each individual tragedy into an unfathomable whole, numbing the heart and the intellect to a collective suffering that is all but impossible to enter and understand. There have been too many revolutions, deaths, and attempted genocides, and the result is that human compassion has become so exhausted, battered, and beaten down that it doesn’t know over what it should be weeping. The scope of the tragedy in today’s world is too large and the victims are so varied and diverse that they have become faceless, their fates rendered abstract and impersonal.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a documentary by Banker White and Zach Niles, is a film that plunges the viewer back into the world, rescuing him from the cocoon of emotional insulation that the current, global situation’s overload of atrocities provides. By focusing on the lives and tribulations of a group of musicians who fled from the war-torn country of Sierra Leone and took refuge within the camps of neighboring Guinea, the film-makers bring the complexities of post-colonial Africa into sharp relief. In a continent where the legacy of European oppressors has been to create a power vacuum that rivaling tribes and ethnic groups strive to fill, common people too often have become innocent victims. Caught in the crossfire of the vaulting ambitions of rival warring factions, millions of ordinary Africans have disappeared, been murdered, or been displaced as fledgling nations struggle to form independent realities for themselves.
The historical and cultural complexities of the different African nations’ searches for identity are too diabolically complex for even the sincerest of outside observers to grasp. Among the thousands of refugees who left their disparate homelands to seek shelter in nearby countries during the last decade, Reuben M. Koroma and Francis Langba met each other at the Kalia Refugee Camp in Guinea, after fleeing from their homes in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Along with Koroma’s wife Grace, they began to make music together to relieve the stress and boredom of living in exile. When the camp eventually was shut down by the Guinean government, which believed that Kalia was being used as a training ground for rebels, the trio moved to a more permanent setting called Sembakounya, which was situated in the remote countryside. Here, they encountered members of a Canadian non-governmental organization who provided the band with instruments and an antiquated sound system. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars had a modest beginning, to be sure, but it was one that would have a lasting effect on the local community as well as on world music fans in the outside world.
At Sembakounya Camp, Koroma met Chris Velan, a singer-songwriter from Montreal, who petitioned for and acquired the equipment used by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. By this time, the group had expanded to include Black Nature, a teenaged rapper, as well as Arahim and Mohammed Bangura, two singers and musicians whose hands were amputated by the rebels that swept through Freetown in the 1990s.
White and Niles spent three years following Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars as it rehearsed its music and eventually returned to Sierra Leone in a jeep provided by the United Nations after peace was declared in 2002. The pain of revisiting the once-thriving metropolis of its beloved capital and witnessing the devastation wrought by years of war translated itself into the creation of one of the rawest and most vital collections of songs in recent memory. Using a recently reconstructed recording studio as a symbolic statement of hope and renewal, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ 2005 debut Living Like a Refugee is filled with the kind of material that hasn’t been heard since the heyday of roots reggae. In many ways, it is the next link in a musical lineage that includes such pivotal releases as Bob Marley’s Natty Dread, Junior Murvin’s War ina Babylon, and Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey. While the singing and playing are often rough and unpolished — lacking the sophistication of performers who have been able to develop their chops in the leisurely environment of a peaceful country — the tunes, nevertheless, all pack a punch. Tracks like Soda Soap and Refugee Rolling are infectious gems that cut to the heart of human suffering and wail with a level of eloquence that hasn’t been heard since Marley left Trenchtown more than three decades ago.
White and Niles’ film Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars frequently is compared with the Buena Vista Social Club, and there are similarities in feeling and tone that cannot be denied. The main difference between the documentaries is that while Wim Wenders’ movie about Cuba followed the lives of professional musicians whose heyday had passed years before their rediscovery, White and Niles primarily are concerned with the power of music and community to overcome adversity.
Music for the refugees of Sierra Leone was not a vocation, but a necessity. It was a dimly sought-after light of salvation as well as a road to healing. Taken in isolation, the work of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars is often crude and unexceptional, but when taken within the context of the musicians’ lives and their circumstances, it is nothing short of remarkable. By following a small group of people who are trying to fight their way out of a desperate situation, White and Niles have created a documentary that cuts to the chase. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars allows its subjects to speak for themselves without the intervention of non-African voices, and it subsequently is free of the hand-wringing and moralizing of well-meaning diplomats. The movie makes sense of the unfathomable, and it gives faces to the anonymous suffering reported daily to the Western world on television and in newspapers. It is an important document that shows the viewer how terribly out of control the global situation has become, while at the same time, it holds out a candle of hope in the darkness. More than anything Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars reminds us how the indomitable spirits of men like Koroma and Langba are what repeatedly have saved the world from total destruction. Their victories as well as their ability to overcome their hardships in the face of incomprehensible odds are to be celebrated. See this film.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box