A few months ago, I was in the squalid refugee (technically, Internally Displaced Person) camps of Northern Uganda. Amidst the chaos and poverty, I stumbled upon a pulsating group of people dancing to some of the most soulful live music I’d ever heard. Inside this circle were a half-dozen or so musicians, playing instruments made from whatever resources were available: logs and leather strings for the guitar-like instruments, USAID tins for the percussion. It was one of the few signs of happiness and hope in a landscape of death and despair. It’s a powerful scene that remains with me to this day. This CD reminds me of that experience.
The Refugee All Stars are, indeed, refugees from Sierra Leone’s long running civil war, which reached the capital of Freetown in the late 1990s and forced most of these musicians from their homes. They eventually met at the Kalia Refugee Camp in Guinea, but then that camp became another battleground, for the Guinea goverment saw it as a headquarters for rebel attacks in that country. It wasn’t until the refugee moved to Sembakounya Refugee Camp that their paths became musically intertwined. And, thanks to Canadian relief workers who provided a sound system, the Refugee All Stars were born. (Following photo by Jane Richey.)
The group began buzzing immediately, attracting support from Keith Richard, Ice Cube, Paul McCartney, and, of course, Angelina Jolie. Though they’ve been simmering beneath the pop culture radar for some time now, this September release is their official debut. With 17 songs ranging from reggae to West African and showing influences from Fela Kuti to Bob Marley and every spiritual African-descended performer in between, Living Like a Refugee is one of the year’s best and most inspirational albums. Lyrics talk about life as a refugee, what it’s like to go hungry, and even include the most fitting African proverb “when two elephants are fighting, it’s the grass that must suffer.”
Assuredly, these refugees have lived through much suffering. But as this album confirms, strife breeds creativity and music, that globally uniting phenomenon, conquers all.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars play the Knitting Factory in Hollywood on November 21.