Anyone who's done the American music festival circuit knows just how tempting it is to naïvely compare those muddy, dense, drug-infested tent cities to, say, a Third World refugee camp. You can be sure, however, that when Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars brought their Afropop to Bonnaroo in 2006, they didn't bat an eye at even the most dubiously hygienic of Béla Fleck groupies.
Bandleader Reuben Koroma's early days as a musician in Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown came to an end in the late 1990s, when he was arrested by the ruling military junta under suspicion of collaborating with rebels — all for wearing his hair in dreadlocks.
If such stories make the Refugee All Stars the "authentic" band, par excellence, you won't find its six members bragging about it.
After Koroma was released, he and his wife fled to a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea to escape the escalating brutality of Sierra Leone's then-ongoing civil war. It was there that he reunited and met with fellow displaced musicians. One of the burgeoning band's percussionists had lost a hand; the harmonica player, his arm. Most, their families.
But it was also there, in the infamous Kalia refugee camp, that they picked up whatever ragtag instruments they could find, and began to create something amid the destruction.
What they created is tough to describe. Blending traditional baskeda and maringa rhythms with joyous reggae and soul, the Refugee All Stars have long resisted critical classification.
"Even though it is international music, they're using international music," says Jeff Bieri, KRCC's program director and organizer of the World Music Series that will kick off with the band's appearance. "Just because they're West African doesn't mean that they're not influenced by other countries as well, [and] other music genres."
Bieri's point is well-taken. In today's hyper-compartmentalized music world, it might just be those who've lived in the displaced, liminal space of the refugee who can remind us that all these boundaries we draw between things are totally arbitrary.