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Movie, Music Help Rescue Refugee All Stars

Of the Oakland Press

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Musicians frequently talk about paying dues. But few have paid them like Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

The 11-member group’s name is no affectation. SLRAS formed in dank refugee camps in Guinea, where the musicians fled during the bitter and violent civil war that racked Sierra Leone. Discovered by filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White, the group went from documentary subjects to worldwide music sensation, with an album (“Living Like a Refugee”); a spot on an upcoming John Lennon charity tribute album; patrons that include Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Aerosmith; and a first full tour of the United States — whose third date is this weekend at the Detroit Festival of the Arts.

“It’s been stunning to us,” Niles says. “To think where we met the band four years ago, sitting in a mud hut in Guinea, to see them on stage opening for Aerosmith, it’s ... stunning is the word.”

Niles and White went to Africa in 2003 looking for a musician through which to tell “the human story” of the Sierra Leone diaspora. Musicians themselves, they’d set up gear and hold jam sessions to court the artists, but after a month they hadn’t found an adequate subject.

But when they reached Guinea’s Sembakounya Camp and walked into The Place To Be, a bar built by another refugee, they encountered something entirely different.

“They had made application to an aid organization to get guitar, a little P.A., an amplifier system,” Niles says of SLRAS, who were led by singer and chief songwriter Reuben Koroma. “They even had a manager, a local guy that would try to set up gigs for them in the camps and the local towns around the camp area.

“They were musicians before the war, and they looked at themselves as professional musicians — before we even got there.”

Niles and White shot 300 hours of footage with the group members, some of whom were inhabiting their ninth refugee camp since fleeing Sierra Leone. Niles and White even tracked the musicians’ return to their homeland — including the heartbreaking scene of one member, Mohammed Bangura, who chose to stay behind in Guinea because he, like so many other refugees, feared Sierra Leone was not truly secure.

Securing financing from McCartney, Richards, actress Angelina Jolie, rapper-actor Ice Cube and others, the filmmakers crafted an 86-minute piece that’s won awards at film festivals around the world and netted the group gigs at major festivals such as Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival, New York’s Central Park Summerstage and Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

At a 2006 stop at the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference in Austin, Texas, SLRAS even busked on the street to raise money for one band member’s wedding and the funeral of another’s child. The ad hoc performance also netted the group a major song publishing deal.

Aerosmith, meanwhile, hopped on the SLRAS train after singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry and his wife, Billie, saw a screening of the film in Woodstock, Vt. The Perrys were so moved that they sponsored a trip for the group to play a show in Woodstock, and Aerosmith subsequently invited SLRAS to open a concert last November in Connecticut and to collaborate on a version of Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” for “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur.”

“The trials and tribulations of putting a band together in this country are a walk in the park compared to what they went through to finally get into a recording studio,” Perry says. “What we did is ... kind of a little project to try and help out. It was a really cool thing to be involved with.”

Niles says a significant reason for SLRAS’ success is that it conveys a universal and resonant message in its reggae-styled music and frank observations such as “Living Like a Refugee,” “Refugee Rolling,” “Weapon Conflict” and “Compliments for the Peace.”

“Beyond the fact that it’s good music,” Niles notes, “is that when people are singing about war and you know they’re singing from such a personal perspective, it just adds so much weight to the music.

“You can hear U2 or whoever sing about war, and it’s a different thing. It’s not as direct of an impact as when you hear Ruben, who’s lost his whole family and escaped, or (rapper) Black Nature, who was orphaned and captured by rebels. It takes on a whole other level when it comes from these people, who have lived it in such a powerful or direct way.”

The SLRAS’ tale will get even broader airing in the coming months. The film will premiere June 26 on PBS’ “POV,” while a DVD release is scheduled for later this summer. That will be bolstered by the group’s current tour, its most extensive yet, and Niles says the multipronged effort is beginning to reach a level of synchronization.

“It’s been a great push-me-pull-you kind of thing,” he explains. “The film brought the band out, then the band sort of pulled the film. Now, hopefully, we’ll all work in conjunction, because it’s a powerful thing to watch the film, then see these guys onstage and what great musicians they are and how far they’ve come. It’s still powerful to me.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars perform 7:30 p.m. Sunday (June 10th) on the Masco/Metro Times Stage at the 21st Detroit Festival of the Arts in the Wayne State University Cultural Center area. The “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” documentary will be shown 5 p.m. Sunday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit. Visit www.detroitfestival.com.

Web Site: www.detroitfestival.com

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