May 2007 – The film shows the band recording their songs in Freetown’s “Island Studios.” We brought those original tracks home with us, and after our musical director Chris Velan mixed and produced them, we put out an eight-song album for the band called “Living Like a Refugee.” While we edited the film, we started to sell this album off of our website with 100 percent of sales going back to the band. By this time, the band members had repatriated to Sierra Leone. For over a year they supported themselves and their families with the income that these sales provided.
IIn March of 2006, we decided to bring the band to the U.S. to make a tour of film festivals (Miami International and the SXSW Film Festival) and for a showcase at the SXSW Music Festival. It was at this festival that their fortunes truly changed. By this time, the San Francisco-based booking agency, The Rosebud Agency, had contacted us, after being moved by the band’s story and music and had agreed to work with them sight unseen. The showcase was a huge success and relief for all of us as the band blew away the capacity crowd. The day after the show the band decided to perform on a corner to raise some money before they went home. The crowd that gathered on the busy Austin, TX streets included a music-publishing executive who was with a lawyer friend of Rosebud owner (and now the band’s manager), Mike Kappus. The lawyer, Ken Abdo, who is now the band’s lawyer, and publisher, Ed Pierson of Warner Chappell, were so taken with the band and their story that by the next morning the band had a publishing offer. Supported by a new-found confidence in the band’s live show and mounting accolades for the band and film, Rosebud was able to book the band throughout the summer in North America (The Bonnaroo Music Festival, Central Park Summer Stage, Montreal Jazz Festival) and Japan (The Fuji Rock Festival) with no record yet in mainstream distribution. A record label contract soon followed and the rest — well, it’s a story that continues to be written.
A little over a year later, the band has now toured throughout the world (including Europe and Australia), they have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, their album was lauded as one of the top “world music” albums of 2006 and they have landed a gig opening for legendary rockers Aerosmith — with whom they have also recorded a version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” for an Amnesty International tribute album.
Our friendship with the band continues to grow and deepen — we are thrilled at their success. Little did we know that five years into our collaboration the tables would turn — as they travel the world the band now are the best “promoters” for the film that we could have ever imagined.
It has been unbelievably heartening to see how people have taken to the music and story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. They have become an inspirational symbol, not just for Sierra Leone, but for refugees and oppressed people the world over. They have taken to their role as ambassadors with trademark humility and dignity.
Meanwhile, we have continued to be honored by the reception of the film in all corners of the world. After a successful tour of film festivals — at which the film garnered nearly a dozen awards — Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars seems to continually find new audiences. We have been moved quite literally to tears by the response of many audiences. Without a doubt, however, our deepest pride comes from the extremely positive and appreciative reaction that the film has received from the Sierra Leonean community, who have embraced the film and the band as the first positive reflections of their beloved homeland that the West has been given.
— Zach Niles and Banker White