The Grass Fights Back: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars' message of hope 

"When two elephants are fighting / the grass it will suffer ... / Them a big fool us / Have no mercy for the old ones ... / Have no mercy for the children ... / Have no mercy for the woman ... / Them a big fool us / ... Oh we a go suffer / Oh we a go suffer."

--Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, "Weapon Conflict"

Hope. It's a weighty word for people who may see no reason to have any, like the citizens of the West African coastal country of Sierra Leone, for whom an 11-year civil war resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 people.

Hope. It was not a word that fell easily from the lips of Sierra Leoneans living in refugee camps in Guinea. But Reuben M. Koroma a man who fled to Guinea from his hometown of Freetown, Sierra Leone, had an unwavering belief that regardless of all they'd lost, hope was one thing that no rebel fighter could take away from his people. That, in part, led him to form the musical group that would become the eight-member Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, which performs in Boise on Friday, May 21, at the Bouquet. Hope was also the notion behind the group's second album, the spirited Afropop-infused Rise and Shine (Cumbancha), released in April.

SLRAS garnered international acclaim when American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White produced the gripping 2005 documentary The Refugee All Stars. Koroma--who had been living in refugee camps since 1997--and some fellow musicians at the Sembakounya Refugee Camp sought to use music not only as a spiritual, emotional and creative outlet for themselves, but as a source of solidarity and a the all-too-lacking hope for those with whom they shared a war-torn history.

People across the world have been enthralled by SLRAS' rich synthesis of traditional African instruments like the samba (djembe), gyile (a wooden balafon) and shekere (shaker) and more typically Western instruments like electric guitars and keyboards. The New York Times wrote about the group: "As harrowing as these personal tales may be, the music buoying them is uplifting. The cliche bears repeating: music heals and creates community."

From Los Angeles, Koroma--his speaking voice lower and quieter but as lilting as the bright, expressive peal in which he sings--explained that the message is as important as the music. Even the title of the new album is a message.

"On this second album, we focused on giving hopes to our people and then to everybody who seems to have lost hope, you know," Koroma said. "That's why the title, Rise and Shine. We totally hope that our country, which has been devastated by war, can rise and shine again. And also the songs we wrote will give the people hope."

Koroma feels that Sierra Leone is improving, albeit gradually. Most of the members of SLRAS have returned to their hometown of Freetown. But maybe more importantly, the world's perception of Sierra Leone is changing, too. He believes that SLRAS has played an integral part in the latter.

"We are [talking about] our country everywhere we go," Koroma said proudly. "We want people really to know that it's not only the war that is happening in our country."

It is because of the war that people know of our country, but there are also good things happening in our country like the beautiful culture. I think when we travel to places ... we are raising awareness of our country everywhere we go."

SLRAS' rising star has also garnered major attention. They were featured on CBS Sunday Morning, they performed on Oprah, and they have a song on the soundtrack for the film Blood Diamond. They also opened for Aerosmith, participated in the U2 tribute album In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2 and performed at the Lincoln Center, where they met former President Bill Clinton.

With that recognition came the resources to better their lives--they travel in a tour bus and were able to afford modern conveniences so many take for granted, like refrigerators--but they haven't forgotten the people at home. When they aren't touring and are at home in Freetown, they perform weekly gigs. Koroma sincerely asserts that fame and fortune was never the ultimate goal for SLRAS.

"In reality, when we started the band, it was to [get people's minds] out of the war," Koroma said. "Making their lives better was the only objective. We never really thought we would become the way we are," he said, chuckling softly. "It's really like a miracle."

That Koroma and his bandmates believe in miracles rings out in the songs on Rise and Shine. Some of that is informed by where they recorded it: New Orleans.

"In New Orleans, we see a heavy presence of live music. When you go to the bars, the clubs, even on the street, you see live musicians," Koroma said. "We are live musicians and we record live, and we just thought it would be an ideal place."

Rise and Shine's 13 tracks are as diverse but as connected as the people who are touched by SLRAS' music. "Gbrr Mani" ("Trouble"), which features the guttural rapping of the group's youngest member Alhaji Jeffrey "Black Nature" Kamara; the horn-heavy "Jah Come Down," featuring New Orleans brass band Bonerama; the Latin-tinged "Tamagbondorsu" ("The Rich Mock The Poor"). The combination of singing and sing-song chants in English and Krio (the national language of Sierra Leone) and the sound that arose from the collaboration of SLRAS with New Orleans musicians all comes together as a reminder never to forget lest history repeat itself and, always, to carry a sense of optimism.

"When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers" is from an old African proverb that means when two sides go to war, it is the civilians who are trampled in the wake.

But with a little hope, sometimes those blades of grass can find a way to once again stand tall.

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