They met in a refugee camp, six Sierra Leone musicians forced from their homes during a decade-long civil war. A documentary was filmed of their lives. Now they've attracted such diverse backers as Angelina Jolie and Ice Cube.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars come to the World Cafe Live Saturday, a stop on their first full-blown U.S. tour. Their music is a stew of West African goombay, roots reggae, traditional folk and rap.
Singer Reuben Koroma told NPR's Weekend Edition last year:
"Music has done much for me, because I lost my loved ones and most of my property. But when I went into the refugee camp I started meditating, I started playing music, so I seemed to forget all my troubles. Since music healed me, detraumatized me, I decided to form a group so that we can also heal the other people because we all have sickness."
From the band's bio, a description of how the musicians connected in the Kalia Refugee Camp in neighboring Guinea:
When Reuben and his wife Grace located Franco (Francis Langba) and began making music for their fellow refugees, their efforts were short lived. Safety in the Kalia camp disintegrated when it came under attack from the Guinean army and citizenry who believed the camps were being used as staging grounds for rebel attacks against Guinea. With refugee camps now war zones, the initial band members - alongside thousands of fellow refugees - were evacuated from the area and moved to Sembakounya Refugee Camp. Set deep in the remote Guinean countryside, it was here that Reuben and Franco - thanks to a Canadian refugee aid organization - were able to acquire the rusted-out sound system and beat up electric guitars that helped officially launch the group.
American filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles met the band at Sembakounya and followed them over three years as they moved among camps and then back home at the war's end in 2001. The film, The Refugee All Stars, won best documentary at the AFI Film Festival 2005.
A YouTube page offers interviews, songs, and a clip from the documentary
The Guardian describes the CD in a four out of five-star review of "Living Like a Refugee," recorded between 2002 and 2005. It was released Sept 26 in the U.S. on Anti Records:
The Refugees play West African styles from highlife to soukous, but their main influence is reggae, with the light, melodic approach of Jimmy Cliff matched against lyrics in English that would have impressed Bob Marley. Songs such as Refugee Rolling (about being moved from camp to camp) or Bull to the Weak (about facing hunger) are not laments but joyful, defiant anthems of survival.
They share one of their songs, "Living Like a Refugee," on their blog.