Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 14, 2007

Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

Last night I attended a special screening of “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” at the IFC theater in New York that was graced by the presence of the band who played for the audience after the documentary ended. Co-Director Banker White, who took questions from the audience, was joined by Ishmael Beah, the author of “A Long Way Gone,” a memoir about being forced to be a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. At this point, the film is not scheduled for theatrical release but can be rented from Netflix, which produced the film.

Unlike “The Empire in Africa“, the film does not attempt to analyze the civil war in Sierra Leone. It instead approaches its subjects–a group of musicians led by Reuben Koroma–in the same way that the directors of “Lost Boys of the Sudan” approached their subject. Namely, it is a tale of dislocation and grief. When Koroma left war-torn Sierra Leone for a refugee camp in Guinea, he was in the same boat as the other residents. Their days were marked by a sense of futility and loss. Even though they were safe from the mutilation, torture and murder of the civil war, each day was characterized by boredom and alienation. That inspired Koroma to form a band in the camp composed of refugees like him, including those who encountered the loss of limb and family members. The goal was to bring some joy into the lives of the refugees. The film’s website notes that a vocalist named Abdul “Jah Voice” Kamara for his perfect high pitch was forced to watch rebels kill his father before they cut off his arm at the shoulder and left for dead. Another, named Mohammed Bangura, had similarly been forced to watch the murder of his parents, wife, and infant child before having his hand severed.

The musicians are not focused on trying to understand the causes of this terrible tragedy, which in some ways defy conventional social and political analysis–including my own. Instead they affirm the spirit of humanity and solidarity that was all but lost in the civil war. This is not to say that they were unaware of the deep social and economic contradictions that led to the slaughter. During the Q&A, Koroma stated that Sierra Leone did need a revolution, but a positive one.

Like “Buena Vista Social Club” or “Gypsy Caravan,” “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” basically combines performances with behind-the-scenes interviews with the various musicians. Their music can best be described as a mixture of West African highlife, a lilting style that emerged in Ghana during the 1950s and reggae. The band also includes a youthful rapper named Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, aka “Black Nature,” who was orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea.

Although Guinea was a haven for the musicians and their fellow countrymen, it was not a place they felt at home in. The final scenes in the documentary describe a tour of Sierra Leone by the group, who were encouraged to see the post-war situation for themselves in 2004. Wary at first, they eventually became convinced that it was possible to return home and set an example for other refugees who followed their example. The band’s CD is available from Anti records, whose website includes a number of audio and video clips of the band in performance.

Official film website: http://www.refugeeallstars.org/

Band website: http://www.sierraleonesrefugeeallstars.com/




  1. ishmael beah’s “a long way gone,” is a memoir about having been forced to become a child soldier in sierra leone, not about having grown up in refugee camps. ishmael beah never lived in a refugee camp– in guinea or sierra leone.

    Comment by sarah crichton — August 14, 2007 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Sounds very interesting. I purchased their CD a few months back and have found it very enjoyable.

    Comment by Graeme — August 15, 2007 @ 7:49 am

  3. I saw the Refugee All Stars at the annual African music concert at Prospect Park last weekend. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. If you ever have a chance to see them, go — tremendous energy, great movement, wonderful music.

    Comment by Alan Ginsberg — August 15, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

  4. […] “Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars,” “The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio” is being distributed by Red Envelope […]

    Pingback by The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 30, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

  5. Fans,

    Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a remarkable documentary chronicling a band of six Sierra Leonean musicians over three years, from Guinean refugee camps back to war-ravaged Sierra Leone is now available on iTunes.

    All you have to do is click the link below and you will be brought straight to the iTunes store for viewing:


    Comment by dbtyouknow — June 23, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

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