Light cannot exist without darkness, shadowing each other through life’s odd twists. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars exist in one such hairpin turn: They escaped horrific calamity and emerged through their music as beacons of hope.
Their story begins in 2002—appropriately enough, in the Place to Be Bar. That’s where nascent filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White first encountered the musicians who would become the subject of their 2005 documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.
Its members had joined their countrymen, who fled the war-torn country by the hundreds of thousands, after an early ‘90s military coup. More than 50,000 people died in civil war during the dozen years that followed. Many escaped into overcrowded refugee camps along the border with Liberia and Guinea.
Niles and White found the outfit playing their song, “Living Like a Refugee.” The filmmakers immediately identified with the words: “You left your country to seek refuge in another man’s land. You will be confronted by strange dialects; you will be fed with unusual diets.” At some level or frequency, we’ve all felt that way.
SLRAS’ youngest member is Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, aka Black Nature, whose father was murdered before his eyes. He escaped forced child soldiery and found his way to the Guinea refugee camp, where he found camaraderie and relief making music among his mates. His hard path has sowed a harvest of wisdom.
“We had to learn from our mistakes, [to] just move on with life and make this world a better place,” Kamara says. “Everything happens for a reason, and we just feel it’s our destination. We’re here on the earth for a purpose, and it’s not just what happens with us. It happens in another country. It happens with another people. And I think that we just want to be able to represent that and preach for the people that have never had that kind of experience.”
The documentary’s story helped turn SLRAS into an international music sensation. They appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and traveled the world, ambassadors not only of their native sound but the message of possibility their very existence affirmed. Their music blends indigenous Gumbe, a rhythmic celebration music, and lolling reggae influence leftover from West Africa’s days as a port from which slaves were sent to Jamaica.
“It’s pretty similar, the downbeat and the drums, but the only difference is that the riddim we play has more flavor of African guitar that makes it slightly different than Jamaican reggae,” Kamara says, evoking the spirit of a revival meeting in Gumbe’s call-and-response structure. “It’s basically a jam music in Sierra Leone where everyone is just partying and a little singing, then some people follow. Everyone can yell out something and improvise a song, and people will try to respond.”
They brought out more of their native heritage on last year’s Radio Salone, accenting their connection to Afrobeat under the eye of producer Victor Axelrod (Antibalas, Amy Winehouse). The album ranges from the bubbly “Reggae Sounds the Message” through the slow-burn atmospheric, percussive jam “Toman Teti M’Ba Akala ”to the brightly syncopated, Latin-tinged beach party of “Mampama.” Thematically, their LP’s informed by radio’s crucial role in the Sierra Leone conflict and, more figuratively, the power of music to connect and unite us.
“In the middle of the war, there was no way for us to communicate,” Kamara recalls. “Radio actually helped save my people. There are times you would be in this state or be in this town, and rebels are coming to attack the town, and you wouldn’t know. It wasn’t just the news of what was going on about the war, but it was entertainment for us because we would listen to other radio stations around the world. We would listen to music and try to block what’s going on, try to pull you aside for a second and feel that you’re a part of this world. And you’re still alive.”
Kamara sees touring almost as a pilgrimage and perhaps a way to pay forward the better life he’s found. “We want to bring joy to the people. We want people to learn they can be in a difficult time,” he says, “and things fall around, but you just have to keep positive and bring happy feeling to the world. That’s our goal, and we’re very happy we’re starting to accomplish that.”
Sat., Aug. 17, 5:45pm. Philadelphia Folk Fest, Old Pool Farm, Salford Station and Clemmers Mill rds., Schwenksville. 800.556.FOLK. pfs.org/folk-festival