You probably need to know their story in order to fully understand why Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are considered a symbol of hope and inspiration.
Otherwise, you might have figured them for another journeyman band playing reggae and rolling, guitar-and-drum West African pop during the band’s show at the Wonder Ballroom Saturday night. If you listened closely, though, you might have gotten a hint of the experiences that have made this seven-piece band a spokesman for millions of people displaced by civil war and other armed conflicts.
There once was a land with lush flowers and sweet grass, said leader and vocalist Reuben Koroma, to introduce the song, Weapon Conflict.
But in this land were two elephants who decided they would fight. And what happened? All the beautiful grass was destroyed!
With a thick, bottom-heavy sound far removed from the acoustic recordings they made when the group formed in refugee camps during the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, they sang, When two elephants are fighting, the grass is gonna suffer, a metaphor for the devastation that displaced nearly half the population, produced child soldiers and left an estimated 100,000 victims of terrorist amputations. In Monkey Work, they asked, What has your Revolution done, invisible wicked men?
The hope comes from their compelling story of survival and rebirth documented in an award-winning film that follows the band from its formation in the camps through its triumphant return home to record the CD, Living Like a Refugee. A portion of the proceeds from its sales and revenue from the film will go to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency’s ninemillion.org campaign to bring education and sports programs to the world’s nine million refugee youth.
Their current North American tour is intended to raise awareness of the problems facing refugees, but the band let the music do all the talking. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet world-class standards. Though the Afro-pop and folk tunes on the program rolled with a buoyant charm that had the crowd dancing all night, the reggae sounded ordinary, and none of the singers possess distinctive voices. Lyrics were often lost in the mix.
The musical highlight featured only percussion and voices in the traditional West African style of interlocking rhythms, call and response vocals and chanted choruses in a tune that seemed more heartfelt, perhaps closer to the sense of home they may never recover.
Now we are rolling thunder, said Koroma, introducing the tune, Refugee Rolling, about constant uncertainty and forced relocation. It was a hopeful statement, but in Sierra Leone, reconciliation and reconstruction are just beginning. And the clearest message was expressed by the tune, War Is No Good.