A vibration sent out into the airwaves from drum or guitar or body, music may be born of pain or suffering, joy or triumph, but when it comes from the heart it is always meant to heal. The exuberant sounds of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars did just that when they brought their gift and message to the Empire Theatre this weekend, inspiring dancers of all nations with their sincerity and levity.
The show was another home run effort by faithful stewards of performance art, music, dance, (and even acrobatics), Arts San Antonio, a nonprofit organization who is still in the midst of their Silver Anniversary season. They have an incredible slate of performers hailing from all across the world, and their next offering, Songs in the Key of Wonder, will feature the Sons of Serendip performing the vast anthology of Stevie Wonder, a servant steeped in the same compassion and healing as the men from Sierra Leone.
Sharing a reggae roots sound that simultaneously grounds with the bass and steady rock of the drum and elevates with the shine of the guitar and congas, the All Stars presented a consolidated version of their original troupe formed in the Sembakounya Refugee Camp in the late ’90s, during the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war. The United Nations felt the power of the music they made, and brought the musicians around to refugee camps all across the border of Sierra Leone and Guinea, a soul-lifting sojourn that sparked their eventual rise into the hearts of people across the world.
An unmistakable rhythm in her body and gleam in her eye, Amainata Davidson didn’t stop dancing from the first downbeat of her home country’s heroes.
“All of these songs brought me back to when I was struggling. I was there as a refugee and came to the United States in 2000,” Davidson said. “Hearing them, it blew my mind. I heard this music when I was a refugee, it came from a place I could never forget.”
Davidson was familiar with the group and their success through the news and YouTube, but had never witnessed them in person, and luckily found out about the show that day from a friend.
“Really, I am so thankful for the gifts God gave them to help people all over the world, people like us that have been through so much,” Davidson said. “I relived so much today, but this time it’s not tragic, it’s not crying. It has transformed into joy.”
An infectious air of compassion and playfulness persisted throughout the course of All Stars’ show, despite the undertones of gravity and humanity that defines much of their music.
“This song is called “Manjalagi” and it means that we are not different, we are all the same, we are one,” said silver-dreaded guitarist Ashade Pearce, whose big-toothed white grin rendered him the nickname “Shiny Black Man” by lead singer Reuben Koroma, who played congas when another member sang.
Due to the band’s insistence that people get up, move to, feel and enjoy the music, the seats of the Empire Theatre were rarely occupied throughout the performance. Tunes like “Cold Water” and “Hunting For Progress” – introduced by Koroma with “Some people hunt for meat, we hunt for progress” – transported the audience into the musicians’ native land, into a deeper spiritual and cultural context.
“It is a symbol to us back home of sacrifice, that God accepts all our prayers,” Davidson said of “Cold Water,” which is offered as a sacred means of connection and unification with God and community. “Without water there is no human.”
Davidson was joined by her adoptive mother, Lilian Haffner, Ph.D, who came from Sierra Leone more than 40 years ago.
“African music erupts something in people, there is such a beat, a joy that even if you don’t understand the words, you’re going to get a positive reaction,” Haffner said of the All Stars’ music, often sung in a broken, Rastafarian English or a native tongue, the rhythm of which defined the experience for many. “Yet no matter how you soar, you need the ground, that balance, and that’s what African music is all about.”
After an uproarious encore with their song “Maria” – which saw all audience members on their feet and dancing up and down the aisles, releasing their inhibitions and experiencing the joy the musicians came to bring – the band sat down for autographs and a scene that could have been from a movie emerged. Joyful exclamations in their native tongue led to a burst of light and a powerful embrace between Davidson and Koroma, who had met 16 years ago in the Sembakounya Refugee Camp and had not seen each other since.
Tears streaming down her face, Davidson emotionally revealed the weight this moment held for her, an unforgettable experience in her personal history.
“When we were waiting for food from the United Nations, Reuben would come and make music to bring joy to our lives,” Davidson said. “When we felt the power of his music, we would forget that we were starving and carry on.”
After a euphoric and cathartic rendition of Sierra Leone’s national anthem, sung in spontaneous wonder by Davidson, Heffner, and the band, everyone ventured backstage to get to know the men behind the music a little bit better.
“We feel we represent the refugees, they have been through our story and it really inspires them to stay focused and have more courage,” Koroma said in his dressing room after the show, shoulder-length dreads and eyes deeply engrained with a world’s history he now shares through song. “They can now say ‘I am a refugee, I should stand up for myself.’ It empowers and uplifts.”
Koroma’s cherubic and childlike grin never seemed to leave his cheery countenance, the same smile he loves to spark in the spirits of his supporters.
“When I grew up I liked to see the smiling faces of people, and I saw that music brings a smile to people’s faces – that’s why I chose music,” Koroma said. “As musicians we know that survival comes from a peaceful situation – the more peace we have the more we survive.”
The strength and steadiness of their stride and speech comes from the same instrument that defines their roots and rhythm.
“African music is about the drum, the drum represents togetherness, and once you hit it they begin to dance,” Koroma said. “We say ‘Before the drum, there is equality,’ meaning rich and poor dance together at the same moment. There is no boundary in music.”