In early summer 2002, a group of friends set out to make a documentary film about the role of music in refugee camps in West Africa. We didn’t know what to expect, but after a chance meeting with the Refugee All Stars, it was immediately clear to us that their story needed be told. Forced from their homes in Sierra Leone by a brutal civil war (1991-2002), the band came together in a refugee camp to play music as a way to understand the tragedy they had suffered, the injustice they had witnessed and to give hope to their fellow refugees.
The title track on this album, 'Living Like a Refugee' was recorded by the light of an oil lamp in Sembakounya Refugee Camp in Guinea. Playing on impossibly worn instruments, the band sang and laughed into the night. Healing and being healed through their music. The above, written by Zach Niles, Banker White, and Chris Velan is found on the inside cover of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ Living Like a Refugee and provides perfect pretext for an album that can only hope to be described in words.
The most impressive things an album can do is convey a feeling of place through words, rhythms, and melodies. The sounds of Operation Ivy’s “Energy” offer a perfect time capsule of East Bay, California in the late 1980s. Sick of It All will always invoke visions of a sweaty, cramped, NYC hardcore show. With Living Like a Refugee, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars transport the listener thousands of miles to the west coast of Africa in the midst of a time of urgency and crisis. Yet with each song that plays like a history of tragedy and suffering, there is passion and hope. Not only do the Refugee All Stars sing of a world outside their civil war, they truly believe it will come.
Strolling easily between reggae rhythms and traditional West African styles, Living Like a Refugee is at once relaxing and inspiring. The laid-back reggae jam “Weapon of Conflict” provides the ingenious proverb, “When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer,” expressing the plight of innocent civilians when two powers clash. The acoustic “Refugee Rolling” offers the blunt reality of being a refugee from a warring nation with the line, “Today you settle, tomorrow you pack! This is the work of a refugee.”
Living Like a Refugee is more than just a good listen. It is entertaining, yes, but it’s also thought-provoking, uplifting, and inspiring. From a world of famine, poverty, and war comes a nearly perfect album. It’s an album that will never make it anywhere near the Billboard top 100, but is already a classic in this reviewer’s collection.