The best music is born out of oppression. From reggae out of the Kingston ghettos to the Delta blues of the American South to Serbian brass bands, music can serve as a tool for the underprivileged to express their rage and misery but also their hope and optimism for a brighter future. For a modern day example of what I’m talking about, just listen to the music of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars.
The group hails from the West African country of Sierra Leone, a country that had been plagued with war throughout the 90’s. Their hometown of Freetown had remained relatively safe throughout most of the war-torn decade. However, on January 6, 1999, rebels invaded the city as part of a bloody campaign: “Operation Kill Every Living Thing.” This sparked a mass exodus as thousands fleed Freetown for neighboring Guinea. Many ended up in refugee camps. It was in one of these camps that band leader Reuben Koroma and his wife Grace joined forces with Francis John Langba (aka Franco).
Reuben, Grace and Franco began playing music to entertain their fellow refugees in the Kalia refugee camp but were forced to flee when the Guinean military and civilian militias attacked the camp fearing it was a staging ground for Sierra Leonean rebels. The three musicians eventually ended up in the Sembakounya Refugee Camp near the town of Dabola. They put a call out for musicians with the desire to form a band and after a Canadian relief agency donated electric guitars, a microphone and a sound system, the group was born.
It was in the Sembakounya Camp that American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White and Canadian musician Chris Velan found the group and began a three year project that found them following the band from camp to camp, filming as the musicians gave hope and inspiration to their fellow refugees.
In 2001 the war in Sierra Leone ended and the band returned to Freetown where they recorded tracks for their debut album Living Like A Refugee which was released on Anti Records in 2006. The film that Niles and White made documenting the All Stars story, became a critical success and the band became an international hit playing live shows in Central Park and the Bonaroo Music Festival and earning praise from Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and actress Angelina Jolie.
The group is currently touring in support of their second album Rise & Shine which was recorded in Freetown and New Orleans and produced by music industry veteran Steve Berlin. The album finds the group expanding their sound, blending reggae with African pop and more traditional chanting and percussion. It’s an infectious sound that they’ve developed over the last five years of constant touring.
They’re coming to the Pacific Northwest in May and Brown Paper Tickets is proud to ticket their upcoming performances in Bellingham at the Wild Buffalo on May 14 and in Seattle at Nectar Lounge on May 15.
This is a rare opportunity to experience a truly inspirational group of musicians at the height of their artistic ability. Born out of oppression comes true inspiration…Ladies and Gentlemen, the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars!