Soul and survival
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars make joyful music at the Levitt Saturday
By Bliss Bowen 08/09/2012
If you follow the transcontinental Playing for Change videos online, in which musicians from around the globe perform in common cause for peace, you have probably already seen Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The eight-man ensemble contributed to a grooving rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” that went viral several months ago, and more recently recorded “Refugee Rolling” for PlayingForChange.com. Or perhaps you’ve spotted their video for “Big Fat Dog,” in which frontman Ruben Koroma is humorously depicted accosting street denizens and callous businessmen in his frustrated quest for food.
But the band’s story, which began in the Kalia refugee camp near the Sierra Leone border in 1997 and was chronicled in the acclaimed 2005 documentary “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars,” is anything but funny. It is, incongruously, uplifting. Likewise, their music is often joyful, even as they decry profiteering and political corruption on their newest album, “Radio Salone.”
Produced by Antibalas/Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings keyboardist Viktor Axelrod, “Radio Salone” (or “Radio Sierra Leone” in their native Krio language) pays homage to the ways in which radio kept their spirits up and their minds informed during the 11-year civil war. It also honors how radio exposed them to dub, reggae, funk, soul, Afrobeat and soukous before the war (and continues to play an important role in Sierra Leone culture, as many people there remain offline, disconnected from the music and news readily available on the Internet). The tribal drumming, elevating one of the album’s most potent tracks, “Toman Teti M’ba Akala,” connects to the African roots of reggae, while “Reggae Sounds the Message” and “Remake the World Again” are obviously influenced by Bob Marley.
It has been 10 years since Sierra Leone’s horrific civil war ended, and Koroma and his bandmates were able to return to their home base of Freetown. Since their humble start performing for fellow countrymen in refugee camps, they have ascended to the ranks of internationally celebrated artists. Now in the midst of a world tour that brings them to Levitt Pavilion Saturday, they are also ambassadors for the UN’s World Food Programme — and for music’s power to heal. As lighthearted as they sound, their relaxed harmonies riding atop overlapping polyrhythms while bemoaning “Mother in Law” or urging listeners to “Shake Your Body” on one of four Goombay interludes, they take that ambassadorship seriously.
Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars perform at the Levitt Pavilion in Memorial Park, 85 E. Holly St., Pasadena, 8 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. For more information, call (626) 683-3230. sierraleonesrefugeeallstars.com