Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars: Musical Joy Transcending Human Misery

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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

On August 8th, I had the pleasure of hosting a great show at the Skirball Cultural Center, and spinning some choice African sides prior to curtain. The Refugee All Stars met in a refugee camp for people displaced by Charles Taylor‘s genocidal civil war of the 1990s. They had musical talent, and some people scraped up enough money to buy the band some used guitars and drums. I once saw a trailer for the band’s documentary showing soldiers chopping off hands and summarily executing innocent civilians on a dirt road. It was harrowing and deeply disturbing.The Western concept of the sanctity of life isn’t observed in many countries.

The band was a tight one, playing Congolese rumba, reggae, and other styles. The musicians could switch instruments and play virtuosically: the conga player went back and played trap drums, the bassist flung his bass over his side and played congas. They could end a song crisply, on a dime. They sang of healing, friendship, desire for happiness, and world peace.

I’m reminded of how pop music can consist of artists moaning over love gone wrong, angst, and other grievances. This is coming from Western musicians who have grown up in relative privilege. They could never know the suffering that the Refugee All Stars witnessed in Sierra Leone. Neither could they impart the joy and celebration that this African band bathed the crowd in during the night of August 8th. I saw young kids, ages 2 or 3, hoisted up elephant-style on their parents’ shoulders. An elderly lady in front of me got up out of her wheelchair in a Lazarus-like moment and started to wiggle her hips. This kind of music really brings people together like no other.

Here is a clip from a documentary film by director Zack Niles about the band:

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