Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are the kind of outfit that reminds us of the abiding truths that underlie hoary clichés about the life-affirming power of music.
Born under the direst of circumstances—in a West African refugee camp, in the wake of a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone—the band began as a duo, vocalist Ruben Koroma and guitarist Francis Langba singing simple songs to the accompaniment of Langba’s battered acoustic, to entertain other residents of the Kalia refugee camp in New Guinea.
Other musicians in the camp soon followed, succored by the donation of some old electric guitars and a used sound system by a Canadian relief organization. A pair of American filmmakers, Zach Niles and Banker White, “discovered” the All Stars at a performance at Guinea’s Sembakounya camp, and their 2005 eponymous documentary film helped bring the band’s burgeoning legend to other parts of the globe.
From those humble beginnings, the band has built a worldwide following, performed on big stages on nearly every continent, worked and played with some of the biggest names in the music industry. They’ve released four albums to date, beginning with 2006’s internationally acclaimed Living Like a Refugee; the latest being their 2014 effort Libation.
Their music is the very soul of transcendence, a pan-cultural mix of reggae, tribal chanting, and various African pop styles, a joyful, buoyant confection that translates the pain and hardship of oppressed peoples into tidings of hope and redemption.
As Koroma told Niles and White in the documentary, “I just took all the suffering of the people and made a song of it.”
The All Stars have a special connection to Knoxville, and, in particular, a special connection to the West family of Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall. Around 10 years ago, the Wests got a call from the documentary producers, a request to screen their (then little-known) film about a group of musicians who played in African refugee camps.
But the band wanted to establish their presence overseas with more than just a few film showings—they wanted to tour, as well. And soon enough, the screening was accompanied by a scheduled performance of the All Stars, at the now-defunct World Grotto, a club that the Wests co-owned on Market Square.
The performance ended up being the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ first show ever in the western hemisphere.
As it happened, the All Stars also needed a place to stay. And they stayed several days longer than expected. Scott and Bernadette West agreed to let the band members—a dozen of them—crash at their modest home in Fort Sanders. “Every morning, I’d wake up, come downstairs, and there would be a bunch of African dudes sitting in my living room drinking tea,” Scott West remembers with a chuckle.
The band’s youngest member, the then-teenaged singer/rapper/percussionist Black Nature, learned to drive while staying in Knoxville. Bernadette West gave him lessons in her 1972 Volkswagen. “For years after, he would call her, out of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of the night, just to talk,” Scott says. “It became a ‘mom’ kind of thing.”
The next time the Wests saw the All Stars, it was on the main stage of annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, TN.
One of the hallmarks of the Sierra Leone All Stars’ career is that, from day one, they have consistently “paid it forward”, giving thanks for their own success by playing benefits and performing for refugees and oppressed peoples even after their renown reached global proportions.
There’s a moment in the Sierra Leone documentary where bandleader Koroma explains to a group of people, at a refugee camp in another country, the larger mission of his All Stars. “We are refugees; we know your problems,” he tells them. “The contribution we have is to de-traumatize the people.”
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars will headline the International Music Fest on Market Square Saturday, Aug. 23. Opening acts include The Theorizt and Marina Orchestra, both of Knoxville. The shows start at 5 p.m.