Group spreads message of hope and peace

Doug Gallant
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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars release Libation, a joyous collection of new material

From 1991 to 2002 Sierra Leone was ripped apart by a brutal civil war that claimed more than 50,000 lives and saw millions of others flee their homes.

Many who fled sought shelter in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. It was in one such camp in Guinea near that country’s border with Sierra Leone that a remarkable story began to unfold.

While living at the Kalia refugee camp, singer and composer Ruben Koroma and his wife, Grace, came together with guitarist Francis John Langba and bassist Idrissa Bangura, both of whom they’d known  in Freetown, to play music they hoped would entertain and bring a little joy to the lives of their fellow refugees.

A Canadian relief agency donated two beat-up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meagre sound system to help them get off the ground. And so began the story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a story that would take them from the refugee camps of West Africa to stages around the world and an ever growing legion of fans.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the band’s first record, Living Like a Refugee, and to celebrate that milestone they’ve released Libation, a joyous collection of new material that will chase the winter blahs away and warm the cockles of your heart.

Like its predecessors, Libation is an upbeat mix of traditional West African music and reggae. And, like its predecessors, the record brings with it an uplifting message of hope, faith and joy.

“It’s been a long struggle out of the war, out of miserable conditions,” notes Koroma. “We try to bring out sensitive issues that are affecting the world. It is all of our responsibility that the masses are suffering. We bring our positive messages into the world so we can expect a positive change in the world. And, most importantly, bring about peace.”

The group has been described as a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact.

They are most certainly that.

The joy I felt listening to this record made the dark cloud circling around my head for much of the day disappear and made me want to dance in the street, no small feat with 12 inches of fresh snow on the ground.

I think that’s how good music is supposed to make you feel.

The band members summed up the making of this record and what it means to them in this collective quote.

“Since that first album we’ve lived a life that once seemed unimaginable; we have toured the world, released more albums and shared our music with thousands upon thousands of friends and fans.

“But while we keep rolling we never forget our roots. So this is our musical libation — an offering — to celebrate the blessings that our music has brought to us, to pay respect to the spirits of the musical brothers we have lost along the way and to pay tribute to Mama Salone — the country whose culture, traditions, and rhythms infuse our music and fill our souls with pride.”

 The All Stars recorded Libation last summer with producer Chris Valen at Lane Gibson Recording and Mastering, the recording studio located at their record label’s headquarters in an 1800s-era farmhouse in Vermont.

The album was mixed by renowned British producer Iestyn Polson, known for his work with David Gray, Patti Smith, David Bowie and others

Those familiar with their earlier records will note that Libation is a much more acoustic record than their last two offerings.

They experiment here with a variety of vintage guitars and hand percussion to create what their label calls unexpected sonic qualities.

“The unplugged style is a return in a way to the days in the refugee camps when the band had to make do with whatever instruments they could round up or make by hand, and do without amplification and electronics.”

For this record, the band also made a concerted effort to mine the riches of their country’s folklore, basing their songs on the highlife, maringa and palm wine styles that the band members listened to in their youth but are not heard as often today.

They also explored baskeda and gumbe, the Sierra Leonean relatives of reggae and soukous.

If you’d like to know more about this band you can track down a copy of a documentary made by American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White.

Niles and White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars will make your day.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments at /;or 629-6000, ext. 6057.

Organizations: West African, All Stars, The Guardian

Geographic location: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Kalia Freetown West Africa

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