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From Sierra Leone, Songs of Survival

By Stephen Brookes
The Washington Post • August 21, 2007

Does any band have a more gut-wrenching back story than Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars? Forced to flee the country's nightmarish civil war in the late 1990s -- when rebels routinely chopped off civilians' limbs -- group members met in a refugee camp across the border in Guinea. Pushed from camp to camp, coping with disease, poverty and the slow erosion of hope, they formed a band and began performing -- and suddenly shot to fame after being discovered by a team of documentary filmmakers.

sierraleone2WEB.jpg"This is the soundtrack for the life we've been living," the group's leader, Reuben Koroma, told the crowd Sunday night at the State Theatre in Falls Church. The band has become the voice of displaced people everywhere, and their songs take on everything from the horrors of war to the dull grind of refugee life. But it's not a catalogue of complaints -- the All Stars' music is relentlessly upbeat and even joyful, full of lilting Caribbean rhythms and African folk influences. "We're living!" shouted Koroma triumphantly at one point. "We survived!"

But as the band worked through the songs from its CD "Living Like a Refugee," it slowly became clear that, for all their amazing resilience, the All Stars are a fairly average band -- lively and fun, but a lot like something that you'd hear at a jump-up on a Caribbean beach. Guitarist Ashade Pearce got in a few nice licks, and the young singer Alhaji Jeffrey "Black Nature" Kamara had an amazing growling, fast-paced delivery, but the rest of the nine-piece band just cranked out the rhythm, and the songs all blended into each other in a feel-good blur.

Far more impressive was the opening act, D.C.-based Afrobeat band Chopteeth. Fronted by guitarist and singer Michael Shereikis, the 13-piece group is a storming powerhouse of big-band African funk rooted in the music of the Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. Playing a mix of music by Kuti as well as originals, Chopteeth was smart, tight and relentlessly driving -- and with a horn section led by the searing-hot trumpeter Justine Miller, a definite don't-miss.

Posted on Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 10:39AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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