Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are bringing the spirit of West Africa to the Bay Area next week. The group is on tour promoting their fourth album Libation and raising money and awareness to help the people of Sierra Leone combat the Ebola virus. The All Stars will play alongside Black Nature Band, a side project of All Stars band member Black Nature. Together they will offer positive vibes and harmonious musical stylings that appeal to the inner dancer and humanitarian in all of us.
Nearly a decade ago, San Francisco based filmmakers, Zach Niles and Banker White, encountered Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars in Sembakounya Camp in Guinea. The Freetown natives had formed their band in a previous refugee camp during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. Niles and White were so inspired by the band that they decided to travel with them for three years filming how they spread joy to fellow refugees in camps around West Africa.
When the war ended in 2002, the band moved back to Freetown and connected with other refugee musicians who became part of the band’s rotating group of members. Niles and White released their documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars in 2005. The film resulted in an album, Living Like a Refugee, and a subsequent U.S. tour that established the band on the global music scene.
Libation pays respect to their beloved country and the band’s four “fallen soldiers,” who passed away from illness and various other maladies. A libation is an offering to a god or spirit to honor the ancestors and the memory of loved ones who have died. The album is a celebration of ten years together, a chance to remember those who have joined the ancestors and a hope for success in the future.
It’s quite remarkable how the All Stars use music to remain optimistic in the face of grave tragedies like war and now, Ebola. Misfortune is a regular occurrence for so many Sierra Leoneans and West Africans. Bandleader Reuben Korma says, “So we are troubled, but we are used to it. We can overcome our sadness and bring happiness to the people.”
As the band progresses on their United States tour, the Ebola virus is spreading back home in West Africa. Koroma calls the virus “a monster disease.”
According to the World Health Organization, 1,026 of the 3,052 reported cases of Ebola are in Sierra Leone and the survival rate is 45%. Even though the group is on the road, the epidemic is always fresh in their minds as their wives and children relay stories of human suffering reminiscent of the civil war days.
The All Stars have launched a fund and awareness campaign about the deadly spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone and neighboring West African countries Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. They have also teamed up with Banker White's media outlet We Own TV, raising money at their shows to help the organization's young filmmakers continue to produce and disseminate public service announcements on effective methods of preventing Ebola in Sierra Leone.
“We just cleaned up the ashes of the war and then comes Ebola you know, as a stumbling block,” Koroma says. “It is trying to kill more people.”
Koroma plans to share his poem about the virus and Black Nature Band will perform their song, "Ebola," at the show. Concert attendees can donate to We Own TV at each venue. Listen to Black Nature's Ebola song.
The All Star’s songs sample a host of sounds from West Africa and beyond. According to Korma, "[Our music] does not orient from Sierra Leone but [for] many years people have been listening to those types of rhythms.”
Many of the group's songs are characterized by a West African style called palm wine, also known as Maringa in Sierra Leone. Palm wine played an influential role in forming the roots of highlife music. The tracks on Libation take a more acoustic approach using mostly vintage guitars, hand percussion and harmonious vocals. The sound is very old school, like the music of highlife/palm wine artist Koo Nimo of Ghana.
This more acoustic style is a return to the All Stars' days in refugee camps where they played the songs of their youth using whatever instruments they could find or make by hand. Aside from highlife, connections to reggae music and Rastafarianism run deep in West Africa. Korma and a few of the other members consider themselves to be "Rasta men," so their albums usually include a couple of reggae tracks, as well.
The All Stars are excited to close their tour in the Bay Area, a place they consider their second home. Korma says they have more friends here than anywhere else in the country. It all makes sense, since San Francisco was where documentary filmmakers Niles and White lived. For these last few shows, the band hopes to get everyone dancing and donating -- with or without the influence of libations.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars and Black Nature Band perform Monday, Sept. 8, 8pm at City Winery in Napa, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 8:30pm at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz, and Wednesday, Sept. 10, 8pm at The Independent in San Francisco.