Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars a study in optimism in the face of adversity

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Sometimes music is the only thing left that keeps you going.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars survived the bloody civil war that ravaged their country from 1991-2002 — in fact, they first started playing together in a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea while fleeing the violence — only to be staring down the spectre of a terrifying outbreak of the Ebola virus that’s so far killed more than 900 people in several west African nations. Several recent posts by the band on their Facebook page www.facebook.com/refugeeallstars, which has more than 11,000 likes, mention the crisis.
The reggae-, ska- and soukous-tinged afrobeat group is on a world tour as a quintet to support their 10th anniversary album “Libation,” and they’re set to take the stage at Sellersville Theater Aug. 20 with songs about peace, equality, love, faith, joy and perseverance.

However, you’ll have to forgive them for being preoccupied. When asked about the Ebola crisis back home, the All Stars’ founder, Reuben Koroma, said in a phone interview: “I’m so worried about my family. I’m so worried about the families of the band members too. It’s just like salt applied to a fresh wound.”
With a golden opportunity to maintain awareness of the plight of the people in west Africa, perhaps now more than ever Koroma is embracing the role of an international ambassador for the healing power of music and the resiliency of the human spirit. “It’s very interesting that we are exposed to different cultures in different places. The lyrics have given hope to many people. Some people think that our music strengthens them. They are giving us work to do. That makes us proud that we have fans in North America,” Koroma said.
Some of their high-profile fans include Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie and Aerosmith.
In the late ‘90s, while Koroma, his wife and their friends in the refugee camp were in exile from Sierra Leone, filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White stumbled upon the ragtag musical group, who had somehow acquired two guitars, one microphone and a bare-bones sound system via donation from a Canadian relief agency. Inspired by their story, the two Americans ended up following Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing a respite to their fellow refugees from their hardship. Niles’ and White’s documentary, “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars,” took Koroma and company from scraping by as refugees to recording their music (including an EP of remixes by DJ Logic) and performing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and at SXSW, Bonnaroo and Central Park SummerStage.
“Most of the important venues across North America offer us some gigs to play almost every year,” Koroma said.
As if coming full-circle, “Libation” — named for the African cultural ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit to honor one’s ancestors, and in memory of loved ones who have died — has an acoustic, campfire sing feel, just like in the days when the musicians made do with whatever was available, simply for the fun of it.
Summarizing the band’s philosophy, Koroma said, “The best way to teach a good example is to do it. The best way to make things happen is to show understanding … be good to your neighbor.”
See and hear more at www.cumbancha.com/slras.
Follow Brian Bingaman on Twitter @brianbingaman.

WHAT: Concert with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Aug. 20.
WHERE: Sellersville Theater 1894, 24 W. Temple Ave. at Main Street, Sellersville.
TICKETS: $19.50 and $29.50, with discounts for theater members.
INFO: Call (215) 257-5808 or go to www.st94.com.

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