Before seeing Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars perform in Chapin Hall on Friday night, I can’t say that I knew much about the civil war that ravaged the country from 1991 to 2002. As the band’s name suggests, the five men who played on stage were themselves refugees, and I subsequently learned that the war displaced tens of thousands more Sierra Leoneans. While the civil war has been over for more than a decade now, it’s not as though the country is without conflict. The war has had a lasting effect on life in the region. And let’s not forget that, more recently, Ebola has taken thousands of Sierra Leonean lives. Some of these facts I learned during the concert; others I researched afterwards, but only a few of them were known to me beforehand. This concert reminded me how easy it is to become (at least temporarily) ignorant to what is going on the world – and I’m not only referencing the wars, genocides and epidemics. It is too easy to get lost in the Purple Bubble and forget about the many beautiful and harrowing things happening in the world.
Luckily, we have groups like Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, the REwind installation in Thompson Memorial Chapel, and – closer to home – groups like Zambezi and Kusika to broaden our learning experiences. To be clear, however, it’s not like I was mulling over these thoughts during the concert – I was too busy getting down. Rather, I was overwhelmed by the power that music can have: its power to heal, its power to unite and, perhaps most importantly, its power to get a roomful of concert-goers to get up and dance.
By the second song – frontman, Reuben Koroma, called songs “soundtracks” – the majority of the audience was shaking it in the aisles, the wings and the back of Chapin Hall. At this point in my article, I’d like to give a quick shout out to local celebrities at the College, Director of the Williams Outing Club Scott Lewis and Director of Zambezi Tendai Muparutsa, for their sensational dance moves. The concert was nothing but fun. The band would announce the title of each “soundtrack” before they started playing and then take the time to provide a brief description of the song’s meaning: how it relates to their own experiences, and how it applies more generally to the human experience. More often than not, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were singing about togetherness or love. Other times the band sang about the hardships of being a refugee, or what is it like to come from an impoverished country. Even then their music was played with passion and joy and, yes, we were still dancing. One song, titled “Big Fat Dog”, was essentially just about a big fat dog, but there could have been more to it. I was too busy juggling an imaginary soccer ball with Muparutsa to think critically about the lyrics at that point in time.
Dancing felt so easy, so right, in large part because the musicianship was so on point. The five piece band was made up of one very talented drummer, nicknamed Mr. To-Go, on account of his perpetual preparedness on stage, one bassist with some mean cowboy boots, a lead guitarist with grey dreadlocks down to his butt, a multi-talented keyboard player/guitarist and lead vocalist and congas player Koroma whose dance moves – the likes of which I had never before seen – put all of us in the audience to shame (except for maybe Lewis and Muparutsa). Standing near the back, I heard much more blended sound – the vocal harmonies, as well as the instruments, were one by the time they reached the audience.
After doing some post-concert research, I was not surprised by the incredible musicianship – Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are seriously famous. They’ve played at popular music festivals like Bonnaroo, Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, Festival International De Louisiane and countless other performances, including a concert on the Central Park SummerStage in front of a massive crowd and an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show – when you get on the Oprah show, you’ve made it. That’s a known fact.
Perhaps the one dark cloud looming over the otherwise uplifting event was the considerable lack of Williams students in the crowd. On a Friday night, there was a world famous group of musicians playing, and I don’t think there were more than 50 people there, and most of the audience was made up of professors and other townspeople. After the concert was over, Lewis told me that he went to Paresky during the intermission to try and get more students to come, only to return for the second half of the concert alone. And I have to admit that it felt a little wrong for such an incredible band to play for such a small audience. Like I said earlier, it’s easy to get caught up in the Purple Bubble… perhaps there was a pregame you urgently needed to get to, or maybe a themed mixer. But I think there was a lot to be learned at that concert, and I’m immensely glad that I went. And despite the rather meager crowd, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars still gave us an encore. Not a single person was in their seats when they played that final song.