The Place to Be...

When I first met the original members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars it was in a remote refugee camp in the Republic of Guinea on a quiet Sunday, eight years ago. My friends, Zach Niles, Banker White and I had been visiting refugee camps for a month, putting on music concerts and trying to find the subjects for our envisioned documentary film about the war in Sierra Leone, explored through the eyes of musicians. That day, we were taken to a makeshift, mud- walled hut that served as a bar called, “The Place To Be”. We ducked through the entrance curtain and stumbled upon the band rehearsing their song, “Living Like A Refugee”, on beat-up guitars and homemade drums. And that was it. We knew we had found our story. From that first chance encounter, beautiful reverberations have been rippling outward ever since.

Through their example, the All Stars have taught me a great deal - for which I’m very grateful. They showed me the power of music to transform and effect change. And perhaps more importantly, they inspired me to believe in my own musical path. While Zach and Banker were making the film and I was producing the band’s debut album, I decided to leave a nascent law career and return to music.

Eight years later, SLRAS are touring their second album, “Rise and Shine”, (produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos) and I’m about to release my fourth album, “Fables For Fighters” on April 19th in Canada and June 2011 in the US. Our lives have continued to crisscross through touring and we always love it when we get a chance to reconnect. So when it turned out that our schedules would coincide in September, I jumped at the opportunity to record “Iñez” at a Boston studio with the band backing me.

It was a fitting song for us to reunite on - a story of a Honduran woman who, against all odds, makes it illegally into the US only to come face to face with the contradictions of the American Dream. Who better to play it with me than a group of Sierra Leoneans who themselves had to flee their country’s war to scrape a living in a hostile foreign land? Underlying the song is an imploring wish for greater tolerance, understanding and empathy towards whomever we view as “others”. These moral imperatives – grounded in our shared humanity and fragility – were what I took away from my experience filming the All Stars’ story in Guinea and Sierra Leone. I had an extra verse for the song but I pulled it because I felt it didn’t work in the way that I wanted it to (reading it now, I think it’s ok):

“…You want to be a doctor
But they’ve got many ways to keep you in your place
They’ve got lots to say about you
But they’re scared to ever say to it to your face
The cry, fortify the borders
We’ve got borders everywhere
Through our homes and through our hearts
‘Til we’ve forgotten how to care
While the tired huddles masses fill night classes
As the bombs burst in the air.”

The afternoon we spent recording Iñez was a blast. The SLRAS have a way of making every studio experience a unique one. Having their raw energy behind the track is what makes the song what it is. I couldn’t imagine anyone else recording it with me.

It’s been eight years since that first chance encounter and the ripples are still traveling. “The Place To Be” continues to be wherever the All Stars are playing.

As a way of trying to give back something to Sierra Leone, we are donating any proceeds from this song to WeOwnTV, a non-profit multimedia educational project started by the filmmaking team behind the documentary film, “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (2006)”, that focuses specifically on the artistic and professional development of Sierra Leonean youth. In 2011, Sierra Leone will honor its 50th anniversary of Independence and to mark this milestone, WeOwnTV will be producing “Meet Sweet Salone: Celebrating and Documenting 50 years of Independence”.

We encourage you to explore the inspiring work these young filmmakers are producing and thank you for any support you can give. We thank you for simply caring.



(Words by Chris Velan)
(Music by Chris Velan & Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars)

Iñez calls me, dear, you want more coffee
I said, you just read my mind
She’s leaning over smiling
These days a smile like that is hard to find
The other tables are getting restless
They’re demanding to be served
But at this late-night diner
Just desserts are well deserved
And we’re a perfect ship of fools
Heading nowhere on La Brea and Vine

Iñez, Iñez in sky-high heels
No one can tell you you’re not trying
No one can tell you how it’s supposed to feel
Iñez, Iñez it’s good you’re here
All dressed up for a letdown
On a lonely night upon the new frontier

You came from Tegucigalpa to el norte
On a train they call, the Beast
And if la migra didn’t catch you
Well, the bandits they would have you for their feast
With the Virgin watching over you
You slipped through in July
As easy as a camel passing through a needle’s eye
To the Land of the Free
Where you’ll be hated, vilified and policed

Iñez, Iñez in sky-high heels
No one can tell you you’re not trying
No one can tell you how it’s supposed to feel
Iñez, Iñez it’s good you’re here
All dressed up for a letdown
On a lonely night upon the new frontier


You send your money to your mother
You tell her you will bring her over if and when
But she knows how the world works
She knows she’s not seeing you again
And we all speak broken English
We all talk on borrowed tongues
And we worry and we love and we sigh on tired lungs
And we are all illegal in the City of Angels, amen


We’ll both stake our claims together
On this lonely night upon the new frontier

Iñez - Chris Velan feat. Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
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