It's hard to think of a more harrowing inspiration for a band than that of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. The West African group met in a Guinean refugee camp after fleeing the brutal, decade-long civil war in their native Sierra Leone. But rather than lose hope, the members — who lost family, friends and limbs in the conflict — found a way to uplift their people through music.
They banded together in the camp and brought their infectious, reggae-tinged Afropop to fellow refugees in camps across the country as the Refugee All Stars. Since the war ended in 2002 and they were able to safely return home to record a debut album, their music and story have propelled them to international stardom, appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and garnering such notable fans as Paul McCartney and Keith Richards.
As part of the Levitt Pavilion Pasadena's Concert Summer Music Festival series, the band will give a free performance on Aug. 11. It's open to all ages, and the festival starts at 6 p.m., with music beginning at 8 p.m.
“When I was growing up, I always liked to express myself through music and singing,” explains the All Stars' thoughtful bandleader, Reuben Koroma, from a hotel room in Spain where the band is on tour. “Music is a way to express someone's mind. Music is good for so many things — to ease the hearts of people, especially people with problems and stress.”
Koroma says he never imagined that playing music would lead him to travel the world and perform with such renowned artists as Aerosmith and Michael Franti. “I was just doing that because it is part of my nature,” he says. “What I enjoy mostly is the pleasure of people — when I see people jump and dance it makes me very happy.”
The band was the subject of a moving, award-winning 2005 documentary, “Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars,” which chronicled their earliest days in the Guinean refugee camp, and their difficult decision to return home after the bloody war. In it, Koroma explains, “The Sierra Leonean people needed a positive revolution. I took all the problems, the suffering of the people, and make a song of it.”
This song was the band's first single, “Living Like A Refugee,” from the album of the same name, which details many of the hardships of being displaced from one's home and country because of war.
While dealing with these weighty issues, the band's bright guitars, rhythmic drums and joyful hollers punctuate most of the songs, which sound more like a celebration of life than a lament on death and hardship.
The band recently released its third studio album, “Radio Salone,” which is a tribute to the important role radio plays in bringing music, news and inspiration to the people of Sierra Leone. “In Creole, ‘radio Salone' means ‘radio Sierra Leone,' Koroma explains.
“Back in our country, people cannot afford to buy DVDs, CD players or tape recorders. For these people, music is on the radio. So radio has been a powerful source of our inspiration,” he said.
Radio Salone was produced by Victor Axelrod, best known for his work with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse and Antibalas. The result is a crisp, polished record that incorporates a variety of West African sounds, reggae, American soul and tribal chants, and addresses themes of hardship and hope in six languages.
What's more, the band is donating proceeds from the sales of the record and accompanying videos to help people in their country and others in need. It recently teamed up with the World Food Program USA to bring attention to the issue of global hunger, and donated a portion of their album proceeds to Schools for Salone, an organization that rebuilds Sierra Leone schools destroyed by the war.
Koroma says band members are looking forward to returning to the Golden State. “This is our first time playing in Pasadena,” Koroma says. “But California is a state we like to play. Frankly, most of the discoverers, like filmmakers, come from California. In L.A. we received our greatest award at a film festival organized by the American Film Institute (for Best Documentary). Anything to do with California makes me happy.”
Now that the war has ended and things are stabilizing in Sierra Leone, the band has returned to the country's capital, Freetown, and is working to help rebuild the country.
“We come out of our country (to tour) once or twice a year,” says Koroma. “Things in Sierra Leone are calm. I think it's stabilized. Construction is going on, electricity is in the making. Sierra Leone is really developing,” he says proudly, adding, “Come one day and enjoy the beautiful sunshine!”
LAURA FERREIRO is a Los Angeles music journalist and a previous contributor to Marquee.
What: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
Where: Levitt Pavilion, Memorial Park, Pasadena
When: Aug. 11, 7 p.m.
More info: (626) 683-3230; www.levittpavilionpasadena.org.