It's common, if not trite, to say that a particular band was "discovered" - maybe in a seedy bar or on a street corner. But if you're talking about Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, the word is more than apt, given that the band was truly found in a seemingly unlikely place by Western ears and exposed to the world by way of a documentary film that launched them to global fame.
The documentary, titled after the band's name, was released in 2005 and let the world in on a band that - somewhat impossibly - had formed in a refugee camp by musicians who'd been displaced from their native country by a decade-long civil war. Their story was inspiring and heartbreaking, but when it came down to it, the band's music spoke for itself and soon people began noticing.
Music fans will continue to notice this band, especially in the wake of their recently released record, Rise and Shine, which features Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars showcasing both their traditional African roots, but also an attention to contemporary reggae and pop music. By their own admission, the band has come a long way - from the poverty and desolation of a refugee camp to a career that sees the band frequently touring the United States and the rest of the world.
"When we all think about the life we used to live in the refugee camp, compared to the life we live now, it's all way different and we've very grateful," says one of the band's vocalist, Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara, who goes by the moniker Black Nature.
These days, the 24-year-old Black Nature is living in San Francisco where he recently finished studying film at the Bay Area Video Coalition. He became interested in film production after his experiences with the filmmakers who created the documentary about his band, and still works with these men on a project called We Own TV, a program that teaches youngsters in Sierra Leone how to produce videos.
Black Nature was only a child of 11 when he began hanging around Rueben Koroma in the refugee camp, located in Sierra Leone's neighboring country of Guinea. Koroma was the music teacher at a school in the camp and took a liking to Black Nature's rapping skills, eventually inviting him to join the band he had founded.
"Reuben had been playing music since before the war and he played music because he loved it. He became my teacher at the school and that's how I got to know him. He's been a big inspiration to me," says Black Nature.
While touring the world takes up a good deal of the band's time and takes them out of their recovering nation, Black Nature and the rest of the band do, indeed, return to their homeland. And although some of Rise and Shine was recorded in New Orleans, welcoming some of that city's talent (like Trombone Shorty) onto its songs, it was important to the band that at least some of the album was laid down in Sierra Leone.
"It was really, really important for us to record in Sierra Leone because traditional music means a lot to us," says Black Nature.
That traditional sound is found on the album, but they do mix in plenty of sounds that are hardly foreign to the ears of an American listener. As a reggae band, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are one of the best touring today - but they're not really a reggae band, something they show when they branch out to more stripped-down tracks that allow the band's cultural vibrancy to shine. The other unavoidable aspect about this band is its members' upbeat, smile-inducing delivery, which is clearly a contributing factor to their popularity.
"Whatever we do, we have passion for it, so we are trying to feel our music first and transfer it to the people the way we want them to hear it - and that's in a positive way," says Black Nature.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
7:30pm Tuesday, May 18. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St. $25, $30. Tickets at towertheatre.org or Tower box office.