On August 13, the band Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars played a free show as part of Victoria’s annual Ska Festival. The band sang about their experiences as refugees of the civil war in Sierra Leone and their lives in a refugee camp, while spreading an internationally applicable message of unity, love and compassion.
Life as a refugee
Singer Black Nature, who also shares in the group’s percussion duties, was 11 when he fled Sierra Leone. Having lost his family in the war, he subsequently had to endure the despair-laced environment of a refugee camp in the neighbouring country of Guinea.
“Living in a refugee camp is like living in a prison because there are so many constraints. Not only were we provided extremely limited food, but we couldn’t move about as we wanted. We couldn’t leave the camp, because the citizens of Guinea considered us rebels,” he says.
The band formed in one of these camps out of a desire to bring happiness and love to their fellow refugees. After constructing their own instruments, the band began spreading music, first throughout their own camp, then to neighbouring camps and later – with the help of American and Canadian aid workers – to North America and the world. They have subsequently starred in an award-winning documentary and have appeared on numerous television shows, including Oprah.
“We play positive music. It’s music of peace. We talk about our experiences, being in a place we did not want to be and still experiencing love and joy. And our message applies all over the world,” says Black Nature.
Music to inspire
The Refugee All Stars’ performance, combining reggae grooves with ecstatic calypso guitar licks and exultant singing, was rapturously received. As well as whipping the crowd into a blissful whirlwind of dancing, the band left audience members feeling inspired, contemplative and, ultimately, grateful for the relatively stable lives they lead in a developed country.
For Kylene Beales, a volunteer at the festival who saw the band’s performance, the band’s story, their performance and their lyrics made her both humble and grateful in equal measure.
“Us Canadians are so privileged and I think we take a lot for granted,” she said. “I think their performance would have opened a lot of eyes to just how good we have it. They showed us that we as people can overcome any adversity with the power of music.”
For Black Nature, the group’s performance at the Ska-Fest was one of the most enjoyable of their career, both due to the audience and to the environment.
“This is one of the smallest festivals we’ve played but the energy and friendliness was just amazing. And the weather is just amazing; it’s just like African weather. The last time we came to British Columbia it was winter and raining and we just wanted to leave. But here, in the harbour, in the sun, and with these amazing people, this is truly beautiful,” he said.
A multitude of music cultures
Alongside Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars the festival boasted a lineup that included Jamaican dancehall queen Tanya Stephens, Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador, Montreal-based ska legends The Planet Smashers and the New Zealand Maori reggae heavyweights Katchafire.
Victoria Ska-Fest founder and organizer, Dane Roberts, claims that the entire mandate of the festival rests on exploring different experiences, cultures and world perceptions.
“We try to bring as many diverse acts from around the world as possible. However, all the acts we bill push the same message of unity, consciousness and love that is shared by everyone that attends and that organizes the festival,” he says.