I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a mixture of synergy, opportunism, and fuzzy feel-goodness coalesce into a phenomenon quite like the story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The group formed in 1999 at a refugee camp in Guinea, where thousands of Sierra Leone natives had fled a brutal civil war at home. The band initially played for other refugees, which wasn’t exactly a careerist move. But lo and behold, in 2002 a pair of budding American filmmakers, looking for a story amid the tragic displacement, stumbled upon the band. Bingo! A star is born.
Filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White began shooting, and admittedly they captured a compelling tale. Back in the U.S., Niles worked for high-powered ticket broker Shelley Lazar — whose client list includes the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Mariah Carey — and she began showing the trailer to various famous people, who started writing checks so the duo could finish their documentary. That backing allowed the band to clear visa hurdles and perform earlier this year at South by Southwest, where, without a record, they signed a big management and publishing deal.
This summer the completed film, The Refugee All Stars, toured the festival circuit, and in September Anti- Records released the band’s debut, Living Like a Refugee, which was mostly cut in Freetown between 2003 and ’04, after the violence had subsided. Most of the music is avuncular if run-of-the-mill roots reggae, with some fiery dancehall-style toasting contributed by the charismatic Black Nature. De facto bandleader Reuben Koroma wrote most of the songs in English. (That seems like a convenient move in terms of attracting U.S. audiences, but he was doing that before the band’s ship had come in.) It’s a pleasant recording with an appealingly ragged looseness to the group harmonies, but I wish there more examples of gumbe, the native style that forms the basis for the album’s best material.
I certainly won’t begrudge the band’s heartwarming success — even if it’s a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time — but there’s no doubt that their triumph is based largely on extramusical stuff. The band plays at Martyrs’ on Saturday, November 4.