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Refugee All Stars get education for Sierra Leone

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars perform Friday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, in a benefit for Schools for Salone. (Jane Richey)
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ASPEN ” The new Aspen High School that opened in 2002 cost something in the neighborhood of an intimidating $41 million.

In a village in Sierra Leone, a school can be built for $25,000, a figure that seemed far more fathomable to Josh Behrman.

“When I learned how little it took to do so much ” like $25,000 to build school ” I thought that was amazing: ‘I should be able to do that,'” said the 49-year-old Behrman, a resident of Brush Creek Village. “I learned more about what had happened in Sierra Leone, and was touched by how much was needed. And given how little money could do so much, I felt connected.”

Behrman, as the owner of the concert promotion company MGP Productions and the events coordinator for Snowmass Village, had a natural avenue for raising funds. He has arranged Friday’s concert by Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. The event is a benefit for the Schools for Salone Project, an American-based nonprofit organization that builds schools in rural Sierra Leone villages. (‘Salone’ is native slang for Sierra Leone.)

Though Behrman has been in the business of producing concerts and other events for over a decade, he seems to have received some assistance from the unseen universe for this one. He was first put in mind of Sierra Leone when Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, a group formed in a refugee camp in Guinea in 2002, performed last summer in Snowmass Village. Cindy Nofziger, a former Peace Corps worker in Sierra Leone and the founder of Schools for Salone, happened to be in the valley at the time. She contacted Behrman, and offered to fix a meal, of authentic West African food, for the band. While serving the meal, Nofziger, a Seattle resident, explained about the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone that had forced one third of the population to become refugees.

“I was pretty intrigued by what she did,” said Behrman. “We stayed in touch by email, and I was asking what she does, how she does it, how she raises money. I realized I could potentially help her raise money.”

Two days after Behrman told Nofziger of his intention to organize a benefit concert, he was on the phone with a talent agent, inquiring about another band. Behrman happened to notice that the agent also handled the Refugee Allstars, who had become prominent through “The Refugee Allstars,” a film that documented their formation, and the well-received 2006 CD, “Living Like a Refugee.” Behrman asked about the possibility of having the Allstars perform for the benefit; the band was already scheduled for an American tour. Within days, the concert was arranged. When Behrman contacted Nofziger again, “She was blown away that the Refugee Allstars were available,” he said.

The story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars is a remarkable one. Reuben Koroma had been the singer for the Emperors, a band that appeared at African festivals and clubs, when the war in his country claimed the lives of his parents, and forced his relocation to the Sembakounya Refugee Camp in Guinea. There, amid brutal conditions and memories, he discovered another purpose for his music. As shown in “The Refugee Allstars,” the band Koroma put together became the life force for the camp.

“Music in the refugee camp helps make people who are sad, happy,” said Koroma in a 2006 interview with The Aspen Times. “People have psychological problems, are highly traumatized. They’ve lost family, property; they miss their country so much. But music was a pleasure to them. Any time we played, they’d come around to listen. They concentrate on the music and forget their problems. It’s like the mind is occupied.”

Thanks to the film, which also details the making of the album “Living Like a Refugee,” the band gained an international audience. In the U.S., the band has been befriended by Aerosmith; the Allstars have opened shows for the rock giants and been joined onstage by Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and Joe Perry. On last year’s “Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur,” a benefit CD to raise funds to stop the ethnic killings in Sudan, the two bands joined forces to record John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” The track landed the Allstars on an album alongside U2, Green Day, Christina Aguilera and others.

“Great things can come out of severe situations, and this is one of them,” said Behrman of the Allstars. “Music is a beautiful thing; it brings so much to the table. It allows you to escape from whatever’s happening. It’s the universal mantra of the world. It’s beautiful what Reuben and the other musicians have done. What they do is bring an awareness of what’s going on in Africa wherever they perform.”

The Allstars are not the only one spreading that word. They are not even the only ones revealing the tragedy of what has happened ” and continues to happen ” in Africa who will be visiting Aspen this month. Their countrymate, Ishmael Beah, appears at the Wheeler Opera House in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation event on Feb. 22. Beah is the noted author of last year’s “A Long Way Gone,” a memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, and his recovery from the emotional trauma. That event, too, has a musical component; Beah’s talk will be followed by a benefit concert by DMC, rapper from the hip-hop group Run-DMC. The event raises funds for Action in Africa, an organization centered in Aspen High School.

As for the school project in Sierra Leone, Behrman’s original notion, that $25,000 seemed a goal well within reach, has proved true. Tapping friends and family, he raised enough money to build a school in Sierra Leone before selling any tickets for tonight’s concert. Now he can get started on raising the funds for a second school.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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