It's impossible to briefly describe the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars without sounding trite or falling into pathos. How to just mention in passing the forming of a band by a group of artists who between them survived the worst atrocities that man has inflected on his fellow men? A 2002 documentary, The Refugee All Stars, has already captured the group and their lives in a Guinean refugee camp, and two of the songs performed in the film bookend this set. Since then the group has flourished, at least musically. Living Like a Refugee is the All Stars' recording debut, tinged with the trauma of their lives, but in the end an uplifting record that reinforces bandleader Reuben Koroma's abiding belief in the healing qualities of music. And the music is marvelous. It's a heady, happy blend of roots reggae, West African goomba, and American blues. "Smile," the group request, and how can you not, as the group sweetly check off the list of the wicked while also offering a lesson in righteousness? The bubbly "Big Lesson" juxtaposes the bad and the good, a not surprisingly recurring theme in the group's lyrics.
The Wailers are an obvious influence on the group, but the differences between the two are equally notable, starting with the choral vocals, the African rhythms that sift through the songs, and the upbeat backings that accompany even the most downbeat and angriest of their songs. Add Geassay "Jah Sun" Dowu Bull's blues-styled, fingerpicked lead guitar, and the band really are in a class all their own. Those unfamiliar with the All Stars may expect this album to be an emotionally wrenching experience, but the stark lyrics of songs like "Living Like a Refugee" and "Refugee Rolling" certainly pack a surprisingly understated punch. That's deliberate, for the group refuse to dwell too much on past traumas; survival means looking forward, finding happiness where one can, and working and educating a new generation towards a better future. And that's precisely what the album offers -- new life, new hope, and the desire to smile and dance one's pain into dust. As musically satisfying as it is soul-comforting, this could well be the most uplifting album of the year.