Music Scene: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, Blitzen Trapper

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

If pain makes great, truthful art, then it can't get any more great or true than the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, a reggae and world music octet made up entirely of Freetown, Sierra Leone, war refugees.

Happening upon a camp with two donated guitars, microphone and a sound system in the late '90s, Reuben Koroma and his wife, Grace, joined with two friends from Freetown, guitarist Francis John Langba and bassist Idrissa Bangura, to perform shows in their camp in an effort to inspire their fellow refugees.

When Americans Zach Niles and Banker White came across the group while filming a documentary on refugee life, the pair was so moved by the band that they followed them for three years as the growing music group toured around different camps.

A documentary, also titled "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars," resulted from those years and was released in 2005, prompting a swarm of media and celebrity interest in the band of survivors. The New York Times and Newsweek raved; Oprah brought the band onto her show; U2 wanted to collaborate; Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie and many others gave their praise. But the whirlwind reached its peak when Aerosmith asked the group, formerly accustomed to playing in West African tent camps with beat-up equipment no one else wanted, to open their show at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Total attendance: 12,000.

And while this sudden success might have carried most bands far away from their roots, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars remains even more connected to its message and purpose than before, fulfilling more of a role as humanitarian messengers and educators than just another band.

The band's fourth studio album, "Libation," was released this year and has already led to a performance at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, private appearances for the United Nations and at this year's Amnesty International Human Rights Conference in Chicago.

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars will perform Saturday at The Pour House, 1977 Maybank Highway. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 the day of the show.

Doors open at 8:30 p.m. with the show set to begin at 9:30 p.m.

Call 571-4343 or go to for more information.

It's true that pop culture progresses in more of an oval shape than a straight line, always revisiting its past and borrowing the best parts before moving forward.

Sure, it's a safe bet to wiggle your way through the openings your idols and influences have created, but it's also perhaps the best way to reach new places, take the roads already paved, you might say.

Portland-based folk/rock band Blitzen Trapper certainly chose that logic when it formed around a decade ago.

Is the music anything new? No doubt that it's not. But when it comes to bands that revisit the past, it all comes down to the question of how much they learned, and Blitzen Trapper studied well.

The band proves to have been a studious pupil of icons like Bob Dylan and the Eagles, and more recent influences like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. The group uses all the right practices for penning a good folk song: The songs are simple and the stories are real; and while the melodies are memorable, they're painful and dingy rather than cheesy and polished.

The group signed with Sub Pop Records in 2007, making it instantly noteworthy to critics; Rolling Stone in particular has adored the band ever since its 2008 Sub Pop debut "Furr" was released.

The band's latest album, "VII," was released last year on Vagrant Records after the band's three-album deal with Sub Pop ended.

Blitzen Trapper will perform Wednesday at The Pour House, 1977 Maybank Highway, with Guilt Ridden Troubadour.

Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 the day of the show, and are available at the door or online at

Doors open at 8:30 p.m. with the show slated for 9:30 p.m.

Go to or call 571-4343 for more information.