Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on May 11th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
And yet, Rueben Karoma, leader of the band proudly calling itself Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars -- formed in the early 2000s at real refugee camps in Guinea, rough and at times perilous settings for the masses fleeing the brutal civil war in their West African homeland – sees a kinship with the people of New Orleans.
"We found ourselves in a bad situation," he explained backstage before the band's performance at the just-completed New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "We went through terrible times and were forced out of our homeland. Same with New Orleans."
So even if they don't use the same term, Karoma sensed that bond on his first visit to the city when the band played a show there in 2006.
"We hear the same frustrations. When people are frustrated like that, they have the same feelings."
That played out well on the band's latest album, 'Rise & Shine,' and onstage here, a key stop on a US tour that is continuing with a West Coast swing, including a show at the Roxy in West Hollywood, Calif., on Wednesday, May 12. In both of these settings, the All Stars' distinctive alternations of skittering Afrobeat and loping '70s-style reggae neatly absorbed some New Orleans elements. Well, at least some New Orleans players. Under the production squireship of Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin, the album sessions featured young, ascending local leader Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews and three trombonists from the brass-rock juggernaut Bonerama: Mark Mullins, Greg Hicks and Craig Klein. The results are very natural, casual at times, from the camp-fire feel of the opening 'Watching All Your Ways' to culture-hopping Afro-R&B-reggae hybrid 'Living Stone.' Mullins and Hicks joined in for about half the JazzFest set, as well, adding punch to reggae and Afrobeat pieces alike.
The locals adapted to the All Stars' sounds readily, Karoma said in a backstage trailer dressing room before the performance. "We taught them the African rhythms. They came in with their rhythms."
Asked what the New Orleans guys taught the Africans, Mullins gave a wry smile and shrugged, "Nothing."
The All Stars were also pleased to find comforts of home beyond the musical experience.
"We had a very good host," Karoma said of Mark Bingham, owner and engineer of the Piety Street studio where the sessions took place. "Very good cook who could fix up African dishes, so we were very happy."
On stage, Karoma introduced the two horn players, saying, "This is our family in New Orleans" But when he introduced a song as connecting their two homes, it wasn't their personal displacements that were the topic.
"This is a song about something that concerns Africa and New Orleans -- slavery," he said of 'Jah Come Down,' one of the new album's most forceful reggae forays.
It is relevant. An understanding of that common history is crucial to understanding more recent experiences. That underscored what seemed to be an emphasis on the African and Afro-Caribbean history of New Orleans in the Jazz Fest 2010 lineup. That's not a new aspect. The massive event -- seven days spread over two weekends, with 10 stages offering a vast spectrum of music from household names (Simon and Garfunkel, Pearl Jam, Jeff Beck, Wayne Shorter) and relatively obscure roots artists alike -- has spotlighted African and related acts among the offerings for years.
A highlight this year was the opening day appearance by Senegal star Baaba Maal, with several thousand people dancing heartily through a pouring rain, complete with lightning strikes what seemed like just a few hundred yards away. The next weekend, while Pearl Jam headlined the main stage in front of a huge crowd, a few hundred people swayed and rocked at the small Jazz & Heritage Stage to the tight, sharp Afropop of Sagbohan Danialou of Benin, whose band was given a New Orleans spike by special guest bassist George Porter Jr., the anchor of the Meters and countless other essential gigs.
But recently there has been an increasing presence of African natives who have resettled in New Orleans, this year including the Ivory Coast's Seguenon Kone leading percussion and dance troupe Ivoire Spectacle (he also fronts the ambitious Ensemble Fatien, a highlight of last year's Fest, with a debut album just released -- more to come on that in an upcoming Around the World) and Senegal's Morikeba Kouyate leading the group Kora Konnection. Each blended the Africans' roots with local musicians and, to varying degrees, local styles.
Jazz Fest producer and director Quint Davis, who's been known to kill the moment with hyperbole now and then, hit this one on the sweet spot when he took the mic at the end of the All Stars' set: "In New Orleans, there are no refugees," he said. "We're all home."