Event Recap

WOOC benefit with Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars & Vusi Mahlasela!

Link to ticketsThe launch of Vusi MahlaselaWOOC 105.3 FM is being celebrated with a benefit concert at The Egg Performing Arts Center (Empire State Plaza, Albany) at 7:30 PM on Friday February 17, featuring Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars and legendary South African anti-apartheid singer/songwriter Vusi Mahlasela.  Tickets to this all-ages show are $29.50, currently available at The Egg Box Office at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, via phone (518) 473-1845 or online at

Vusi Mahlasela“We are looking forward to working with The Sanctuary for Independent Media to present these extraordinary African performing artists,” said Peter Lesser, executive director of the Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center that manages The Egg. “We are particularly happy to be part of the effort to raise funds and awareness about radio station WOOC 105.3 FM which plays a diverse selection of world music including the artists scheduled to perform on February 17.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix to the world stage mining the riches of Western African folklore, performing uplifting–and very danceable–highlife songs of hope, faith and joy. 

Vusi Mahlasela–simply known as “The Voice” in South Africa–is celebrated for his distinct vocal style, fine guitar playing and his poetic, optimistic songs. 

“Both artists offer a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact,” stated Mr. Lesser.

Steve Pierce, executive director of The Sanctuary for Independent Media and program director for WOOC added,  “At the Sanctuary and WOOC, our mission is to use art and participatory action to promote social and environmental justice and freedom of creative expression. These artists show the power of music to change the world; they are at the forefront of the movement for peace and understanding.“


From their humble beginnings in West African refugee camps, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages and matured into one of Africa’s top touring and recording bands. They also now play an important diplomatic role as spokespersons for the ever-increasing millions of refugees worldwide.

Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.

Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.

American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. Eventually, the war in Sierra Leone came to an end, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who joined the band’s rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown’s ghettos that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars recorded the tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, “Living Like a Refugee,” which was released on the label Anti in 2006.

The resulting film that documented this moving saga, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, was a critical success, and introduced the world to the personalities and dramatic stories behind the band, not to mention their instantly appealing music. The movie, album and eventual U.S. tours helped expand their following, and soon the band found itself playing in front of enraptured audiences of tens of thousands at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.

The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

After a 10-year adventure that has taken them from the squalor of refugee camps to the world’s biggest stages, Africa’s most inspirational band continues to ascend. Over the years they have evolved to become one of Africa’s most recognized bands with fans across the globe. Their albums and live shows embodies and radiates the joy, passion for music and love for their fellow man that have made Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars a living testament to the resilience of the human spirit and an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.


Vusi Mahlasela grew up in the Mamelodi township, just outside of Pretoria, South Africa, where he still resides. As Vusi tells it, he grew up a happy kid and was blind to the injustices in his country. His grandmother operated a Shebeen behind their home. Due to the cultural boycott inflicted by Apartheid, black South African music was hard to come by and was banned from being played on the radio. So, they played American records in the pub. James Brown. Motown. The Commodores. And whatever South African and African recordings they could find: Mahotella Queens, Mahlatini Queens, Miriam Makeba, Dark City Sisters, Fela Kuti. Young Vusi and his neighborhood friends formed a little band of their own and started making music of their own, inspired by the recordings they heard wafting out of the Shebeen. Vusi built his first guitar from fishing line and a cooking oil can and taught himself how to play. In 1976, Vusi’s political education began as he witnessed the devastating massacre of more than 200 black South Africans in the Soweto Uprising. Vusi responded through his music, inspiring other musicians and listeners around him.

Vusi began to write songs of justice, of freedom, of revolution, of love, of peace and of life. He joined a poetry group, The Ancestors of Africa, and also joined the Congress of South African Writers, a group of like-minded artists and writers, including Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who paid for Vusi’s first guitar lessons. At this point, his political activism truly began. For the “crime” of writing songs of freedom and human dignity, Vusi was held in solitary confinement; he was harassed by the police repeatedly. Many of his friends fled the country. Through this struggle, his songwriting became not only prolific but also healing for himself and for his listeners. He simply became known as “The Voice.”

At the fall of apartheid, Vusi finally recorded his first album—a collection of songs he’d been writing his whole life. In 1994, Vusi was proud and very humbled to perform at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration. “The Voice” was soon heard all over the world. Since the release of that first album, Vusi has traveled the globe sharing his songs of truth and hope, and sharing his country’s past and promise for a better future.

Americans first caught a glimpse of Vusi Mahlasela in the 2002 documentary “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony” that chronicles the strength of music during the struggle against apartheid. Shortly after the debut of the film, fellow South African Dave Matthews signed Vusi to his label, ATO Records, and released “The Voice,” a collection of songs from Vusi’s South African releases. “Guiding Star” and 2011’s “Say Africa,” produced by Taj Mahal, soon followed. His albums have received mass critical acclaim and celebrated musicians have taken note of his powerful voice and message. Vusi has performed at two TED conferences, the Skoll World Forum, The Elders annual meeting, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday, Mandela Day and more. But perhaps his biggest gig was in 2010 when he helped ring in the World Cup in South Africa, at Orlando Stadium in Soweto.

Vusi recently received an honorary doctorate degree from the prestigious Rhodes University in Grahamstown, SA; a couple of weeks later on Freedom Day, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma awarded Vusi with the National Order of Ikhamanga recognizing him for “drawing attention to the injustices that isolated South Africa from the global community during the apartheid years.”

The SAMA Awards (South African Music Awards) chose to honor Vusi with a Lifetime Achievement award to recognize his accomplishments both at home and abroad.


The Sanctuary for Independent Media is based in a century-old former church that has been re-purposed into a telecommunications production facility dedicated to community media arts. It is a place where community-engaged interdisciplinary artists experiment with aesthetic form and challenging content, with the overarching goal of shedding light on media arts’ vital role in the process of building a democratic society. The Sanctuary for Independent Media, located at 3361 6th Avenue in North Troy, hosts screening, production and performance facilities, and arts and education training in community media and media arts.  The Sanctuary has expanded in recent years to include an adjacent outdoor performance venue for summer concerts and community events, called Freedom Square, and an environmental education complex, NATURE Lab, which includes gardens, greenhouses, artist residency and teaching facilities. Other initiatives include the Youth Media Sanctuary summer employment program and the online video channel Sanctuary TV.


WOOC 105.3 FM is a non-commercial, listener-supported service of The Sanctuary for Independent Media, with a broadcast signal that covers the Troy/Albany area and an online presence at streaming worldwide.  The station format is news and public affairs during weekday morning (6-10 AM) and afternoon (3-7 PM) drivetime hours, with world musics including reggae and African pop at other times.


The Egg–the Empire State Plaza’s Center for the Performing Arts–is owned by the State of New York and managed by the not-for-profit Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center Corporation.  This entity was established to present quality performances, accessible to all citizens of New York State, highlighting the unique and extraordinary artists from New York State, across the country and around the globe. Through partnerships and collaborations, the Corporation presents performances, spotlights emerging artists, fosters relationships with resident companies, and enhances activities in cultural and arts education.