Anyone who saw the film Refugee All Stars, the story of refugees from Sierra Leone’s civil war who form a band in their camp and transform their lives, knows the cathartic power of music for people whose circumstances have become desperate. Now, as the Refugee All Stars ride the world music magic carpet to the great cities of the world, one might wonder how many other musicians have labored and languished in other West African refugee camps, lifting local spirits, unnoticed by the world. One answer comes in this CD sampling diverse musical performances recorded in a camp in Ghana that was home to Liberian refugees for some 18 years.
Liberia’s civil war spread some 850,000 refugees throughout West Africa. As many as 40,000 Liberians at one time lived in the Buduburam camp, outside Accra, Ghana. The camp was built in 1990 (for 8,000 people) and closed down in 2007 when it was deemed safe to return home. During those years—long enough for the first children born there to grow to adulthood—people from 16 ethnic groups made the best of life amid sickness, hunger, and the traumatic aftermath of a brutal and senseless war.
Between 2005-2007 a group of University of Alberta students spent time working in Buduburam under the direction of ethnomusicologist Michael Frishkopf. The 16 tracks compiled on this CD were created, performed and produced by musicians in Buduburam. The artists are mostly young, some young enough to have been born in the camp. The styles range from reggae to gospel to highlife and hip hop—gospel being the predominant genre. The productions are necessarily simple, and heavily reliant on hearty, portable digital technology. This is keyboard music. You don’t find a lot of guitars and drums, let alone horns, in a refugee camp. No matter. The real soul of these songs lies in the voices—anguished, soulful, harmonizing beautifully despite dreary circumstances. Song after song, singers chant down violence and war and boost liberation, peace and progress. The sheer force of hope and positivity in these performances is inspiring.
At its height, Buduburam was home to 200 West African churches, so the gospel passion in much of this music is hardly a surprise. And these folks can sing! There is gospel rap, like “Peace Must Prevail” by Shadow, the producer behind many of the songs on this CD. “Shine for Jesus” is a perky number from a choir led by a man orphaned and disabled in the war. On the song “Ah Mama,” Timothy Faya Bomah combines reggae and Ghanaian hip life, and aces the track with a righteous soul rasp in his voice. The call-and-response choral vocals of “We Are All Liberians” by a group called Calabash Unite Us All is the one track accompanied only by traditional drums, and to these ears, one of the most pleasing to hear.
The CD gives due respect to each act, describing their song, their hopes and visions, and providing an email address for each, should you wish to reach out or get involved with the individual lives of grass roots African musicians. Time will tell whether any of these artists emerge in the world music market as the Refugee All Stars were so fortunate to do. But there’s a deeper measure of artistic worth at play here. Out of circumstances few of us can imagine, these young people chose music and found the will and the means to write it, rehearse it, perform it, and record it, despite having next to nothing. Beyond the bleep beats and squealing synths, this is a document of the strength of the human spirit and the true purpose of music.