It is a rare musical act that can get Seattle’s normally staid crowd not only moving, but enthusiastically dancing – particularly in a relatively small club packed to the gills with an animated crowd. Yet the story of the Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone is nothing if not impressive, a story of triumph over challenges far more trying than mere listener boredom. Currently on a wide-ranging U.S. tour, the group met in a refugee camp in Guinea, having fled war-torn Sierra Leone. Life in the camp, unsurprisingly, was harsh, and the All Stars, after receiving musical instruments from a Canadian refugee aid organization, came together in the hopes of uniting inhabitants of their refugee camp through the joy and power of music. Fortuitously, for both the All Stars and the world, their music was discovered and effectively spread through the work of two amateur documentary film-makers with influential friends (including the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney), whose film The Refugee All Stars quickly vaulted them into the international spotlight. Indeed, from humble, indeed survivalist, beginnings, has risen a band with nearly global reach, and inarguably global potential.
In recent weeks the group has played at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival (at which they performed for over 75,000 people), where one can only imagine the massive dance party that transpired to their infectious, Caribbean-tinged Sierra Leonese “goombay” (an updated, electrified version of more traditional African music) melodies. They have also recently played Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Hall, leaving their recent benefit show at Neumo’s already seeming like an improbably fortunate opportunity to view such a dynamic band in a conversely small setting. In support of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the multi-instrumental All Stars moved the swinging crowd into a full arm-waving, sardine-dancing mass, inspiring with talk of love, peace, and happiness. Complementing the contagious joy they obviously take in their work were intriguing variations in vocal form, ranging from rap to beautiful three-part harmony from a variety of the musicians.
The Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone have fast been making a name for themselves as an energetic, enthusiastic band who has overcome incredible odds, not just to play music, but to merely have survived.