Monday, September 10, 2007

Sierra Leones Refugee All Stars lift spirts with music

For nine refugees from Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, music is a harbor for troubled minds. But, they want to be remembered as more than survivors. They are musicians who call themselves Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

Proving they have come a long way from writing by the light of an oil lamp, SLRAS are on a U.S./European tour which stopped Wednesday night at the ornate Pabst Theater. The band packed powerful energy and poignant lyrics into songs about refugee camps, life, war's destruction and love's redemption.

Using only the lower level of the theater, the general-admission event took on more of an intimate coffee-shop vibe than a concert. However, SLRAS took the stage to an instant standing ovation and played to an audience of consistently dancing and cheering enthusiasts that made the crowd seem much larger.

The evening opened with "Weapon Conflict" from SLRAS' debut album "Living Like A Refugee." From that moment, the beats were an infectious mix of rap, reggae, folk and "raw African music," for the songs without electrical instruments. At first, only a few people crowded at the front to dance, but progressively shyness melted away and the aisles filled. Those who remained sitting visibly shook a body part or two to the beat in a night that was filled with movement. Physical movement of people dancing, of course, but also the movement of the message SLRAS is trying to spread.

In between songs, bandleader Reuben Koroma told the audience, "I want to tell you about the wonders of life. The wonder of life is love. Where there is love there is power." Don't confuse the concert with some cheesy lovefest. The purpose and the energy of the night was something much more profound.

For example, in the jacket of the album, band member Arahim says "I take it as destiny, even the one who did that to me, if I met him on the way. I'll greet him. I'll forgive and forget." SLRAS has an unbelievable capacity to find joy and love after experiences of torture and displacement. No one could blame them if they had settled for embitterment.

The most startling part of SLRAS music is the uplifting sound and tone forged through hard times. That's a stark contrast to most emo singers, many of whom haven't seen half the trauma and yet they pour out depressing tributes to their bad days.

The track "Living Like A Refugee" brought the audience into everyday life at the refugee camps, but still with an unstoppable energy.

Koroma sang, "No hospital, no good food, no good water, no good house to sleep in, outbreak of disease..." And so on. But true to the band's uncanny ability to rise above their circumstances Koroma found the silver lining: "One good thing about this situation is the band on stage."

SLRAS was founded within a refugee camp and while some of their lyrics express suffering and tragedy, others are clearly about hope and creating a better future.

Surviving trauma is one goal of the music, but the tour is designed to connect with the world and generate funds for organizations that aid refugees such as the Peace Corps, ninemillion.org, Immigrant Rights and Save the Children, among others.

OnMilwaukee.com Music: Sierra Leones Refugee All Stars lift spirts with music