COLUMBIA — Of all the things to remember when traveling, the most important one is showing up. Failure to do so can have throw off plans and lead to disappointments, a lesson Zach Niles and Paul Sturtz learned the hard way.
The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars captured the interest of True/False Film Festival director Sturtz, who saw the documentary “Living Like a Refugee” at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam almost two years ago. Directed by Niles and Banker White, the film chronicles the group for three years in its efforts to start a band while living at Sembakounya Refugee Camp, northeast of Sierra Leone.
Sturtz and Niles communicated by e-mail and phone for weeks, trying to figure out the logistics of getting the group to Columbia in February for the 2006 True/False Film Festival. The performance in Columbia would be the group’s first in the United States.
“None of them even had a passport at the time to come over here,” Niles said. “They didn’t have formal identification, proof of where they’d been, their nationality or that they were refugees,” all of which he believes contributed to the long process of getting the group to the U.S.
“We were answering phone calls up to the night before they were supposed to come,” he said.
Delayed flights, along with a weak understanding of English and no prior travel experience, made it uncertain whether the group was ever going to arrive.
Niles said they talked with the U.S. Embassy in Guinea to get paperwork and passports straightened out, but the significant time difference and a lack of an embassy in Sierra Leone compounded the problems.
Having also seen the film, United Nation representatives, refugee agencies and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office all vouched for the band and put their weight into the effort by making direct calls to the Guinea embassy, Niles said.
“It looked good some weeks and looked bad others. ... It came down to cliffhanger time and we fell off the cliff when they missed their flight,” Sturtz said. The Refugee All Stars arrived in the U.S. four days after their scheduled appearance at the True/False Festival, having been rerouted to Nashville, Tenn.
“I’ve never seen such relief as they stumbled off the plane with their instruments, having not showered in three days or been out of Sierra Leone at all,” Niles said, upon meeting the group in Nashville, a sort of unconventional way to enter what he described as a “brand new world.”
Since arriving in the U.S. in 2006, the group’s popularity has soared, earning them opportunities to perform at some of the world’s most prestigious festivals, including The Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, South by Southwest Festival in Texas and the Chicago Folks and Roots Festival. The group also opened for Aerosmith in November and is scheduled to appear on Sept. 7 in Columbia as part of the Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival.
Niles said he doesn’t believe the band is aware of all that has gone into getting them to Columbia.
“It was such a distant concept,” he said. “We had a packed screening at the theater that night, and I don’t think they realized how many had heard of them for so long.”
The upcoming festival has renewed planners’ hope and excitement for the group and their scheduled appearance.
“There’s a lot of people holding their breath, hoping they’ll show this time,” Niles said.
If they do, Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival co-founder Steve Sweitzer said he believes audiences will recognize the group’s “dynamic music.”
“They are a true example of triumph through creative spirit,” Sweitzer said.
“They celebrate life rather than the physical conditions they had to go through,” he said in reference to group members fleeing Freetown, Sierra Leone, during the country’s decadelong civil war. Their ability to “find joy even in that experience” is what Sweitzer believes make the Refugee All Stars stand out.
“But you have to listen to the record a few times before getting that,” he said.
The Refugee All Stars are touring the United States and Europe. They will be at the Save the Children’s 75th Anniversary Benefit in New York the day before the scheduled performance in Columbia.