Rob Patterson

Refugees Bring It Home

Confession time: In my annual wrap up of political music at the end of last year, I missed one album that I shouldn't have overlooked. It's a highly notable one, too, and maybe the best political album of last year.

I won't use my serious concerns with American political affairs and the increasing amount of pointed pop music commentary on the state of the nation -- continuing unabated this year -- as an excuse for what felt like a gaffe the moment I slipped Living Like A Refugee by Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars into the CD player. It's not only one of the best world music records in recent memory, but a near-perfect model for great political music. It serves as both a broadsheet call to awareness and action while also carrying the healing properties of the human heart. And even though it addresses the tragedy of Sierra Leone's recent and brutal civil war and the plight of the millions of refugees that resulted, its spirit is universal. Plus, as they used to say on American Bandstand, you can dance to it.

I pulled the disc out of the "to be listened to" pile to take along on a road trip from Texas to Florida and back. And from the moment the first song, "Living Like A Refugee," played on my car speakers on the long drive -- perhaps the best way to really listen to music, IMHO -- I was hooked by music, lyrics and performances that are undeniable. By the return leg of my journey, Living Like A Refugee was in heavy rotation. And as I drove into the devastated city of New Orleans for a brief visit, the title song even gained domestic resonance.

One of the cruel ironies of both human existence and artistic expression is that the greatest tragedies and suffering can also evoke profound art and inspire the best elements of the human character (witness Picasso's "Guernica"). Living Like A Refugee is a classic example of that -- an album that, for all the strife and sadness that it emerged from an addresses, uplifts the soul.

The album originated from a documentary film about the role of music in the refugee camps, and the title song was recorded in 2002 in a camp in Guinea. It inspired the filmmakers to arrange a studio recording a year later when the Refugee All Stars returned to their country.

Part of the album's charm is certainly musical. Drawing from both the infectious West African "High Life" style and the Caribbean reggae of Bob Marley (a musical icon if not hero in Africa), it is rich with rhythmic and harmonic charm.

And then there's the first-person if in fact highly personal lyrical reporting from both the battleground -- on songs like "Weapon Conflict," whose key line sings, "When two elephants are fighting, the grass 'dem a-suffer" -- and the refugee camps. Out of the greatest human tragedy comes both poetry and lyrical uplift, as exemplified on "Smile," which frames a review of the rogue's gallery of false prophets with an exhortation of positive spirit.

Both songs cast main Refugee All Stars songwriter and bandleader Reuben E. Koroma as a talent comparable to the great Bob Marley ("Weapon Conflict" even echoes the groove and melody of the Marley classic "Stir It Up" in a sweet touch of homage). Just as Marley and the Wailers fashioned musical redemption from the slums of Trenchtown in Kingston, Jamaica, what Koroma and his fellow All Stars created in the refugee camps that helped "our collective trauma … to minimize," as he says in his liner notes.

And for all the conflict, suffering and sorrow that the album's lyrics detail with a humane eloquence, the end result is some of the most uplifting and inspiring music to come from the Third World since the 1970s heyday of Marley and Jamaican reggae. It's a must-have album for any fan of world music, and a stunning and powerful example of how the magical and mystical properties of inspired music can raise the state of existence of Sierra Leone's citizens and refugees and anyone who listens with an open ear and heart.

When one looks at the world we live in today, fraught with conflict, violence and terror, it may seem like hippie-dippy naiveté to contend the music is the most effective weapon in the struggle for humanity and peace. But Living Like A Refugee is the kind of music that makes one believe in that dream.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email