Feature photo by Zach Smith
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars bring their Positive Revolution Tour to Chicago on April 15
“Our country went through a lot of terrible things, my dad was killed in front of me, I was taken as a child soldier. I had a lot of anger. Music helps me melt down that tension, gives me hope”, says Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara. Known as ‘Black Nature’, he’s the youngest member of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, and he’s describing how making music helped him and many of the other members of the group survive a civil war that at in the nineties plunged the West African country of Sierra Leone into over a decade of raging violence.
An orphaned teenager, Black Nature and tens of thousands of his countrymen and women fled to refugee camps in the neighboring country of Guinea. There, he began hanging around Reuben M. Koroma, an older musician who had played with several of the capital city’s bands. “Music was the only thing for us to do, and it reformed our life”, Black Nature declares. The group, who were featured in the acclaimed documentary titled “Refugee All Stars”, initially just performed in the camps. The official ensemble was created when the at that point ex-refugees finally reunited with other musicians that had stayed in the capital.
Their music is often described as reggae, but Black Nature clarifies that it’s actually a Sierra Leone sound with strong ties to the Jamaica and the Caribeean, and that they also incorporate a variety of traditional musics from their homeland, even preserving music that is in danger of being lost. However, it’s not just about roots and tradition. Black Nature also raps and sings, and as he proudly describes, “They call me the ‘machine’ of the All- Stars”. I am curious why, and he says that it describes the high energy of the group, particularly transmitted by his performance: “I guess the other members are older and can’t jump and move like I do.”
And indeed, their performances communicate an invincible force of positivity that makes you glad to just be alive and moving to the beat. In fact, Black Nature is reluctant to go into many details about his time in the camps, and says he doesn’t even have an exact count how many years it was. In our conversation, he’d much rather focus on how the music transformed their lives and allows them to share a message of peace and hope: “War doesn’t ever solve problems. And we can say that in a language that anybody can understand! You can forget about struggles and stress. It helps people get happy! That’s the powerfulness of music.”