In 2001, six men gathered together around the fire of a refugee camp in the West African Republic of Guinea to make music together. Their home of Sierra Leone had been torn apart by civil war, their lives displaced, their future uncertain. They began playing instruments, channeling their experience into song and singing together under an evening sky: “You left your country to seek refuge in another man’s land . . . / Living like a refugee / Is not easy.”
So begins the debut album from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars, Living Like a Refugee, and it’s a thrilling moment for the listener; on the album, actually recorded in the camp, one hears the chirping of a cricket and the indistinct background sounds of night. The music is damn good, and those with no available space next to their copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland should start clearing the shelf; Living Like a Refugee covers the gamut from reggae, juju, dancehall, hip-hop and folk, often blurring the genres and emerging with a disc that’s fresh and, considering the circumstances of its inception, actually quite fun.
The Refugee All-Stars, a widely acclaimed documentary film about the group’s courage and determination gained through music to overcome the frontline atrocities of war, comes out on DVD this month, but the All-Stars have been touring extensively throughout the world and, lucky for us, stop by Petaluma in an exclusive Bay Area appearance this Friday. In the past year, the group have been featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation and, in one of modern music’s weirder collaborations, teamed up with Aerosmith to record “Give Peace a Chance” for the smash-hit Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur CD. But the best way to experience the Refugee All-Stars’ tales of strife and redemption is in person, as multiple singers and dancers recount a life that hardly any of us could imagine living.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars perform on Friday, Aug. 3, at the Mystic Theatre. 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 9pm. $20. 707.765.2121.