Bandzoogle Member Spotlight: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
Bandzoogle Member since: 2011
Genre: Reggae, Afro-beat
From: Sierra Leone
As they languished in a refugee camp in Guinea, the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars could not have imagined what the future would hold for them. In just five whirlwind years, the group has been the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, toured the world to support a critically revered album, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, had their music featured in a major Leonardo DiCaprio film, and shared the stage and studio with Aerosmith, Keith Richards and other international stars. The band is a tangible example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact.
We’re thrilled to have them as part of the Bandzoogle community. Black Nature, the youngest member of the band, took a few minutes out of his busy tour schedule to talk to us about the band and their new album:
Q: You’ve traveled the world, been on the Oprah show, you’ve shared the stage and studio with Aerosmith, Keith Richards and others. How do you remain grounded as a band? Is there any temptation to try and live that kind of life full-time?
We’re still grounded in where we came from. We try not to get away from our origins, we try to represent who we are and our country, our continent and our culture. We’re still refugees, even though we’re not living in refugee camps anymore, there are still issues that we talk about. We’re not going to start talking about money or cars or other things like that. We feel we still have thousands of miles to run. I just feel like we’re here for a purpose, and still haven’t fulfilled all of our goals, so we still have to keep going.
Q: The band now has a record deal, publishing deal, booking agent, you travel the world, etc. Does the band still feel like a family like it did in the early days?
Absolutely, we still have a sense of family. For me personally I feel like all of the members are my father figures or uncle figures, we all have mutual respect for each other. Coming from the same country, everyone considers everyone as family. We still have that, we still maintain that.
Q: How hard was it to go back to Sierra Leone the first time?
On a personal level, I was totally hopeless, I didn’t know where I was going to start from. I didn’t know where my family was, what exactly am I going to go do? But at the same time, I kept the faith, this is my country, let me just go and see what is going to happen. It was very, very challenging. Everything changed, it was like another country. The people I used to know in a particular neighborhood were gone, everything was in a different order. But I kept doing my thing and I got used to it.
Q: You have a new album out called “Rise & Shine”. The album was tracked in New Orleans with veteran producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. What was that experience like? Did you find any parallels between a post-Katrina New Orleans and post-war Sierra Leone?
When I was there, it absolutely reminded me of Sierra Leone. And with the music, the culture, the food, I was like wow, I feel we had a strong connection. It was like wow, you know, we fit in perfectly!
Q: What was it like making the album in New Orleans and being able to draw from such an incredible pool of musicians in that city and collaborate with them?
Ya! That’s the thing, I was like wow, this is incredible! We got to feature “Trombone Shorty” and Bonerama that played the horns on the record, and Washboard Chaz who played instruments that I never saw before. It was really incredible.
Video preview of “Rise & Shine”:
Q: What motivates the band today to continue this positive revolution that started in those refugee camps almost 20 years ago?
Well, I think it’s the ongoing things that are still happening in the world, like Libya or somewhere else, we feel for those people, we were once like those people, you know, the innocent people that don’t know exactly what’s going on and they just get killed or displaced. And also other societies, like in America, it’s one of the most incredible places on earth, but there are really bad things happening like drug wars and gang wars, all of those things, you know. I wish I could talk about nice sunglasses, or about nice clothes, but I feel, no I can’t, because there are still things that are going wrong. That’s the motivation that’s just kept us going.
Q: Where do you think the wind will take you in the future? What’s next for Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars?
We’ve been all around, I’m hoping the wind keeps bringing us around and that people will get to learn and people will get to listen. And hopefully they take this message from these songs and say ‘let me practice this, let me pass it on to my generation, to my kids, my family, and see how we can change this world into a better world for the next generation’. That’s what I’m hoping.
Filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White along with musician Chris Velan, encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances.
The resulting film that documented this moving saga, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, was a critical success, and introduced the world to the personalities and dramatic stories behind the band.
The film’s trailer:
Filmmaker Zach Niles, who now manages the band, took a few minutes to answer a couple of questions about the band’s website, as well as what the Montreal connection to the band is. Since Bandzoogle was founded in Montreal, and founder Chris Vinson, CEO David Dufresne and blogger-in-residence Dave Cool all live there, we were obviously very curious.
Q: What is your favorite Bandzoogle feature?
Since I am a manager that often acts as a tour manager and PR and merch guy the best thing about Bandzoogle is that I can update easily and on the fly. Almost anything I need to do is easily done within the framework. Makes life so much easier and as a non-techy person it makes it so much less daunting to be managing a website that's visited (hopefully) by thousands people. I also love the integrated email feature, we just made a template and I type in and boom it's off! I use to procrastinate for weeks on email blasts just because I didn't want to deal with it.
Q: The design is beautifully done, did you work with a designer for it?
I worked with a great designer named Alana Salcer. I gave her some creative pieces that we use in our marketing and she adapted them to the platform. I love the look of it.
Q: How has your website helped to amplify the band’s message of positive change in the world?
Even with Facebook and Twitter people still use websites to create a deeper connection with artists. I've tried to nurture that relationship with as many candid pictures and tour videos, news updates, live tracks, etc. It provides a platform where the story of a band can really be highlighted - and Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have one of the most compelling stories out there!
Q: There’s a Montreal connection to the band, how did that come about?
Well - our really great friend Chris Velan is a Montrealer. Chris discovered the band with myself and Banker White back in 2002 in a refugee camp in Guinea West Africa. He produced their first album and just collaborated with the band on a song "Inez" (inez.chrisvelan.com). We're hoping to write and record more with him in the future. Check him out at www.chrisvelan.com
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