Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
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Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

New York City, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014

New York City, New York, United States
Established on Jan, 2014
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Years since two filmmakers discovered a group of musicians in a Guinea refugee camp, that group — Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars — continues to make new music. Banning Eyre says their latest album is guaranteed to make you smile. "For a band born amid war and flight, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars sure make happy music. They're a blend of old school West African party grooves, roots reggae, gospel and marching band brass who's pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on your face." - NPR


Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars came to Vermont last year to make a record. They left with so much more: warm clothes, full bellies and new friends.

The record, “Libation,” came out March 18 on the world-music label Cumbancha. The band returns to Vermont for a show Monday at Higher Ground, giving the members a chance to reconnect with the place and the people who welcomed them with food, clothing and fellowship less than a year ago.

One band member, who goes by the stage name Black Nature, said he’s thrilled with the way “Libation” turned out. The album’s dozen songs capture the vibe of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars that mixes upbeat West African rhythms with reggae-styled tempos.

“It’s beyond my expectations,” Black Nature said in a phone interview from his home in San Francisco. He said the band aimed to recreate the “around the campfire” sound it began with. “It sounds like the All Stars. We absolutely accomplished what we wanted.”

He said a lot of that success has to do with the welcome Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars received when they rehearsed for the record at Goddard College in Plainfield and recorded “Libation” at Lane Gibson Recording & Mastering adjacent to Cumbancha’s offices in Charlotte. He said he and his fellow All Stars were in an environment where they felt comfortable and supported, allowing them to focus on the music.

“The creative process, the inspiration, just kept coming,” Black Nature said. “We felt like it’s a home for us.”

The story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars echoes of the arrival of the von Trapps in Vermont. Both fled strife – civil war in West Africa and Nazism in Europe, respectively – and arrived in the Green Mountains armed primarily with the power of song. Most of the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars returned to their homeland once the civil war ended more than a decade ago, but have found a second home of sorts in the hills of Vermont.

Hospitality in Plainfield
The band’s welcome in Vermont took root last spring, when Goddard College offered the band dorm rooms to stay in while they rehearsed for their recording, in exchange for a concert the Refugee All Stars performed on campus. Cynthia Johnson of Calais wasn’t really familiar with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, but when she heard that the group would be at Goddard she came by to share homemade guacamole.

One thing led to another. One musician with a serious look on his face told Johnson he needed to get money home to his family in Sierra Leone and wanted to know how to get to the store where he could send it. She said she’d return the next day to take him there. She asked if his band mates needed any provisions and he said yes, so she piled four of them into her roomy Buick and took them to stores in Berlin to pick up food, cell phones and phone cards; they even stopped at a farm for that quintessential Vermont treat, maple creemees.

Johnson, who’s on the community advisory board for the Goddard College radio station WGDR, said she went home that night and told her husband she wasn’t sure if the West African band had proper clothing for the cool, damp Vermont weather. He went to his closet and took out sweaters and rain coats he didn’t need, which she brought to the band the next day.

“They were so welcoming,” Johnson said of the band members. “It was kind of fun, and it got personal right away with these clothes — ‘Oh, I think that one would look better on you.’ We sort of became instant friends.”

Johnson asked WGDR to send out queries among its programmers to contribute food and clothing, which many did. A caterer regularly brought food to the band, allowing them to focus on rehearsing for the album they’d record in Charlotte rather than on making their next meal.

“That made it kind of festive,” Johnson said. “I would drop in when I could to listen in on their sessions. I tried to be really in the background, come in quietly and sit over at the kitchen table.”

Black Nature talked excitedly about the band’s time at Goddard. “We didn’t really feel like we were musicians; we felt like we were students staying in this dorm room and trying to be creative with the music,” he said. “We were there for a couple of weeks just writing and practicing with the producer (Middlebury College graduate Chris Velan) and us, and at the same time we had friends coming over with food. It was a really incredible experience.”

At home in Charlotte
The welcome continued when the band went to Charlotte to record the album. Jacob Edgar, the Plainfield native who runs Cumbancha Records, posted an online query asking for help for the band. One couple provided housing. Others offered food and musical instruments.

“We got huge responses,” Edgar said.

Worcester musician Chad Hollister had an instrument the band was looking for — a Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar like that used by Johnny Cash. “It’s a workhorse but just mikes up so well,” Hollister said.

Hollister is a touring musician who said he’s seen many performers who don’t appreciate what they have. “Every day that you’re able to be on a stage and play for people is a true gift and a blessing, and these guys do that more than most,” he said. “I just love the soul. One of my favorite lines is ‘Music can heal.’ And ‘Don’t lose hope,’ and ‘Music can cure you.’ That to me is what these guys live and breathe.”

John Snow cooked a couple of meals for the band during their stay in Charlotte. He served in the Peace Corps in 1977 and 1978 in Makeni, a city in northern Sierra Leone. He said he had heard of the Refugee All Stars but was not as familiar with their music as he wishes he had been.

“I was really personally kind of excited to go back in my mind to Sierra Leone,” said Snow, a retired investment banker who volunteers for the Charlotte Fire and Rescue Department. He said he was most proud of the ground-nut stew he made for the band with a recipe that’s a variation of a staple of Sierra Leonean cuisine.

“I did not slaughter a goat for this. I went to the grocery store and bought some beef,” Snow said. “I think they were kind of pleased to see something a little different than just plain, normal chicken and rice. They certainly ate it all up.”

'Strong community spirit'
Those who helped Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars during their time in Vermont have had the chance to revisit their memories from last year now that “Libation” has been released. Hollister got to listen to the contribution of his Gibson acoustic guitar.

“It’s so cool to hear it back and what the engineers did with it,” Hollister said. “Those guys are livin’ it and I just think it’s so great with their success. It’s so well-deserved.”

Snow hasn’t been back to Sierra Leone since his Peace Corps days, and his visits with the Refugee All Stars let him reminisce. A couple of the band members are from Makeni, so he got to talk about the place where he served. He remembered a children’s song from Sierra Leone, and when he brought it up many of the band members chimed in to sing along.

Snow appreciated his renewed relationship with the nation. “Part of it is that the history of Sierra Leone has been so sad, especially for those of us who knew it before the rebellion and the blood diamonds and the child soldiers,” he said. “Knowing as I did from afar the horrors of the internal wars and child soldiers it was nice and it was fun for me to reconnect with Sierra Leoneans who are still those warm, friendly, wonderful people that I knew.”

Johnson was happy to do what she could for the band in Plainfield. “I’ve traveled enough to know that the simple things in life can be a lot more complicated” when traveling, she said. “It was easy for me to give. And it came back to me; they put me on the guest list for their concerts. They gave me back what they could. Even the friendship was nice.”

The help from residents of Plainfield and Charlotte is typical for Vermont, according to Johnson. “I don’t think the life of a musician is easy,” she said. “You’re being away from home for so long and traveling great distances. You look for opportunity to show some hospitality. I knew that our community would (help) if they knew. For me it was an adventure without leaving home. They graciously welcomed me in to listen while they refined their songs. They’re just a lot of fun to hang out with.”

Edgar said the “great energy and spirit” of the album his record label released was aided by the treatment the band received in Vermont. The help offered to the Refugee All Stars, he said, was equal to the benefits the communities received.

“It was an example of what makes Vermont such a great place to do this type of stuff, because we have such a strong community spirit,” he said. “They want to invite people from other cultures into their world and help them out.” - Burlington Free Press


Back stories don't come more compelling, or harrowing, than that of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.
The group formed in the fetid refugee camps of Guinea, where it had fled to escape an 11-year civil war at home (1991-2002). Tens of thousands of their countrymen were maimed or killed in the battles. Two million entered the displaced world of the refugee.

Idle and depressed, the musicians slowly formed a makeshift band to boost their spirits - and those of everyone around them. They concocted an ironically sprightly mix of West African reggae, pop and rap. A group of filmmakers, who were in Guinea to do a documentary on the refugees, wound up focusing on the musicians instead. The movie, and a subsequent album, made the All Stars legit stars around the world.
Tomorrow, they'll headline a free all-day festival of African music at the bandshell in Prospect Park. (Also on the bill: Zimbabwe's Stella Chiweshe and the Congo's Shiko Mawatu). Despite the horrors that spurred their birth, the All Stars' music sidesteps anguish for joy.

Tomorrow, they'll headline a free all-day festival of African music at the bandshell in Prospect Park. (Also on the bill: Zimbabwe's Stella Chiweshe and the Congo's Shiko Mawatu). Despite the horrors that spurred their birth, the All Stars' music sidesteps anguish for joy. - NY Daily News


Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have traveled far from its modest beginnings as a music band formed by war refugees. The group is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a new studio album recorded at Cumbancha studios in the Green Mountains of Vermont (USA). The increasingly popular band is well known for its irresistible mix of highlife, maringa, palm wine, baskeda and gumbe music with reggae, and pop hooks.Libation was produced by an old friend, Chris Velan, the producer of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars first album, Living Like a Refugee.The album’s title, Libation, refers to the ceremonial pouring of a liquid that is common in some African cultures. A libation is dispensed as an offering to a god or spirit, to respect the ancestors, and in memory of loved ones who have died. After completing the album, the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars celebrated the accomplishment by pouring a libation, both as a salutation and to remember the numerous beloved members of the band who passed away over the last ten years and could not be included in the session.Sierra Leone All Stars – Photo by Zach SmithThe album’s production became a community event. The producers indicate that volunteer members of the community often dropped by to give rides to band members to buy phone cards to call home or to cook for them. The comfortable backdrop in Vermont was totally different from the conditions experienced during the recording of the first album, which was factually recorded around a campfire in a refugee camp in Guinea and in a muggy, rickety, studio in Freetown, where electric shocks and power disruptions were common.Although Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ songs are designed for dancing and having a good time, the lyrics also convey an important sociopolitical message with topics such as unity, support for the poor, debt, dirty politics, the danger of tribalism, etc.In the album’s booklet, the All Stars make the following declaration: “This album celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the making of our first album Living Like a Refugee. Since that first album we¹ve 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.” - World Music Central


Discography

Living Like a Refugee (2006)
Rise & Shine (2010)
Radio Salone (2012)
Libation (2014)

Photos

Bio

Sierra Leones Refugee All Stars proudly celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their astounding and uplifting career on their fourth studio album, Libation. For these beautiful recordings, they go back full circle to the rootsy, acoustic, around the campfire sound that appeared on their first album, much of which was recorded in the refugee camps during their years in exile from Sierra Leone. 

Back then, the group was in a very different frame of mind, had yet to tour the world, and were still raw in their sound. Over the years they have grown and evolved to become one of the worlds premiere African bands. This album demonstrates and celebrates how far they have come as a group, both in terms of their now-signature sweet songwriting and crisp performances. 

Its a family reunion as well, as they reunite with Chris Velan, a producer on their debut release. The new album was recorded in the Green Mountains of Vermont and mixed in London by Velan and renowned British producer Iestyn Polson, known for his work with David Gray, Patti Smith, David Bowie and others. 

This momentous recording celebrates, embodies and radiates the joy, passion for music and love for their fellow man that have made Sierra Leones Refugee All Stars a living testament to the resilience of the human spirit and an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe over these past ten years.

The members of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars include: Reuben Koroma (Lead vocals), Ashade Pearce (Guitar and vocals), Jahson Bull (Keyboard, guitar and vocals), Blacknature (vocals and percussion), Christopher Davies (Drum set) and Dennis Sannoh (Bass and vocals).