Band of the Day

2012.04.11

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

Revolution-inspired Afrobeat supergroup sings about keeping the faith in times of tragedy
You left your country to seek refuge in another man's land. You will be confronted by strange dialects, you will be fed unusual diets.
lyrics from Living Like a Refugee

The origins of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all in the name. During the Sierra Leone Civil War, which lasted from 1991 to 2002 and caused over 50,000 deaths, many citizens were displaced to neighboring Guinea by the warring factions. Some of these refugees got together and began playing music and soon enough they began touring and playing their brand of World, Reggae, and Afro-Beat to raise awareness for humanitarian efforts. The group was even documented in the movie Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars which told the group's story of fleeing to Guinea and forming a band to create music to ease the pain war had caused them. Their first album Living Like a Refugee was released in 2006, followed by Rise & Shine in 2010. 2012 sees the group looking to release their third album, Radio Salone in April.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars create a joyous, buoyant noise, the type of reggae-flecked Afropop that gets entire crowds of people off their feet and onto the dancefloor. But the band—and the music they create—comes from a place of unspeakable tragedy. From 1991-2002, the West African country Sierra Leone was devastated by a violent, unyielding, and terrifying civil war that left more than 50,000 dead and forced 1 million residents to flee to safer pastures. Musician Rueben Koroma and his wife Grace suddenly found themselves displaced from their homeland. With no hope to return anytime soon, the couple recruited other musicians from the camp, including guitarist Francis John Langba (a.k.a. Franco) and bassist Idrissa Bangura (a.k.a. Mallam), to form a band to entertain their fellow refugees and inspire hope to a people that desperately needed something to believe in. The Refugee All Stars were then born after a Canadian relief agency donated two old electric guitars, a single microphone and a tiny sound system. Soon enough, the band were being filmed for a documentary and touring the world over, bringing festival crowds to a frenzy with their uplifting tunes and inspirational story. The band’s own website hails them as “a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact,” and we couldn’t say it any better ourselves. Their latest album, 2010’s Rise & Shine, broadens the sound of debut Living Like a Refugee, expertly mixing rootsy, uptempo West African music with reggae and dancehall influences. “Global Threat” throbs with a classic rocksteady pulse, with a guitar-led skank, hand percussion accenting a steady off-beat and lyrics that mix English with the band’s native Krio language. Jubilant horn sections and amazing guitar playing drive most of these songs, including “Jah Come Down,” which sounds like the Wailers playing the world’s best West African wedding. “Tamagbondorsu (The Rich Mock the Poor)” even resembles British ska heroes The Specials with its frantic pace and sing along Melody. Rise & Shine was recorded in New Orleans by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and the band continue to collaborate with noted musicians outside their country—their new album, Radio Salone (set for release this spring) is a product of a cold January recording session in Brooklyn, NY with Victor Axlerdod of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. It’s amazing that music so cheerful and fun can come from such a dark place, but Sierra Leone’s Refugge All Stars represent a living, breathing example of how any hardship can be overcome with a few good jams.