Nowhere is the power of music more fundamental to life than in Africa, where racist dictatorships have literally been toppled through popular song. The history of contemporary African music intertwines with political history regularly in unexpected, and often profoundly moving, ways. And since the release of the landmark documentary Come Back Africa (1960), made surreptitiously in Sophiatown by legendary filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, the connection of music and politics has been reinforced and amplified by independent filmmaking. After showing two of the best recent documentaries to explore African music and activism-Amandla! and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars-UCSB Arts & Lectures welcomes two of the most remarkable of these African musical groups this month with a concert by Hugh Masekela and his Chissa All-Stars on Friday, February 8, and another by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars on Friday, February 15.
For these musicians, nostalgia is not an option. As Hugh Masekela says at the end of Amandla!, “For us, with the end of apartheid, we feel our ‘good old days’ can now begin.”
I spoke with both Masekela and Reuben Koroma, leader of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, last week.
What was it like to return to your home in Freetown after spending years in exile? Everything was new. Most of the people I had known there had been displaced and I couldn’t find them anymore. I had to look and look for them because my old contacts were no more. The only people I found easily were some of my former band members, through the music. It allowed us to find one another even when all the old places were gone.
How did you meet the film’s directors? Banker [White] and Zach [Niles] came to the camp in Guinea. We had already formed the band in 1998, so when they arrived in 2002, we were ready to do something. Before that, we had just been playing songs, but the film gave us something because it created a priority for us, which was to develop our music.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
- When: Friday, February 15, 2008, 8 p.m.
- Where: UCSB Campbell Hall, 574 Mesa Rd., Santa Barbara, CA
- Cost: $19 - $42
- Age limit: All ages
You’re in New Orleans today. How is that? I really like New Orleans. I can tell it is a special place, and it reminds me of Freetown. The streets are nice and tight, and some of the buildings look the same. Besides, it’s almost the only place we’ve been on this tour where it’s not cold! It’s 74 degrees today, and sunny. It’s nice.
And you’ve been working with Joe Perry and Aerosmith. How did that come about? Their promoters saw our documentary and liked it, so we sent them some songs, and we ended up in the studio together, recording music with Aerosmith. Actually, in Africa, people do know a lot of American rock music, so even before we ever met Joe Perry we had heard of Aerosmith. Honestly, I don’t think any of us ever imagined then that such a thing as what has happened was even possible. It is truly a dream to us. And we remain grateful for the film, because that is what opened those doors for us.
You have taken the name “refugee” and made it something to be proud of. Can you give any counsel to other people like you who have lost their homes? I do have some things to say to refugees. I want them to believe some things with me, like that all is not lost because chances are. Do you understand? “Chances are!” Have a focus and work toward it. Being a refugee, you are down, but that don’t mean you are done. Walk strong in life and you will achieve what your courage can bring you.
That’s great advice. What can you tell those of us who are lucky enough to be at home here in Santa Barbara? We have a theme for this tour, which is Give Peace a Chance. My words for Santa Barbara would be to know that peace is the most precious gift. It is up to us to give it a chance.