Thursday, September 20, 2007

VOANEWS: Sierra Leone Refugees Find International Success in Music

Government corruption and control of the diamond industry fueled the civil war that erupted in Sierra Leone in 1991. By the end of the decade, fighting had spread throughout the African country and included battles in the capital, Freetown. Thousands fled to Guinea and other neighboring nations. But as VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, the end of the civil war marked the beginning of success for "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars."

There is a saying among the refugees of Sierra Leone. "Today you settle, tomorrow you pack," something Reuben Koroma knows all too well.

After fleeing rebel forces in Freetown in 1999, he lived in five different refugee camps in Guinea -- a place where adversity became the mother of musical invention. "Instead of thinking all the time of what has happened to us, I think we need to do something else, and we found music as a treatment for ourselves, passionately."

Other musicians found their way to Koroma in the camps. Some had suffered brutal amputations. Others were missing relatives. All had been forced from their homes. Their shared trauma became their inspiration and the foundation for Koroma's new band -- the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. "At any time we started to strum the guitar or sing, we could see that 50 people, 100 people would come around us. So we saw that music was a sort of therapy not only for us but for other people in the camp."

On the eve of a tour of several different refugee camps, a documentary film crew joined the All Stars and began to document its quest to record an album. "They said, 'Look guys, we want to make a documentary film about you guys, are you interested?' "

The documentary crew also followed the group on its return to post-war Sierra Leone. As part of a program sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the All Stars were encouraged to return to Freetown to prove that the security situation was stable.

Not only was it an opportunity for the group to record an album, but also to reconnect with friends and family that the musicians thought were dead. Among the happy reunions documented on camera is one with Ashade Pearce, Koroma's former bandmate. "I received a letter from Reuben, because I was -- I believed that Reuben was dead -- so the first day that I received a letter from Reuben, I said, 'Oh yes, my brother is still alive!'"

Four years after finding each other in the wake of civil war, they are very much alive, and together once again on stage.

But this time, the stage is not a refugee camp in Guinea or a club in Freetown.

They are headliners of the "Celebrate Brooklyn" music fest in New York City, just one stop on a worldwide tour this year. "We used to entertain people in clubs, like 200 or 300 people. Now we entertain thousands, so it's a big challenge for us."

The music tour follows the release of the documentary that chronicled the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars' rise to stardom, as well as the album recorded in Freetown in 2003 and 2004 called "Living Like a Refugee." The band's music is now played on radio stations around the world.

They also have appeared on television, notably in the United States on the popular talk show program, the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Members of the group hope to use their fame to spread a message. Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara lost his entire family in the war. Now he is Koroma's adopted son, a rap vocalist who calls himself Black Nature. He intends to speak for others orphaned by war. "We are representing refugees around the world, and we are teaching them to forget about the war, but we are telling them that war is not the answer."

Reuben Koroma says that he hopes that the band's success will allow them to fund clinics, hospitals and a music school for children in Sierra Leone. "We are trying to develop Sierra Leone in our own little way."

Monday, September 10, 2007

VOANEWS: Construction at New York's Ground Zero Slowly Increasing

It is some of the most controversial real estate on the planet. The 16 acres of land in New York that is known as "Ground Zero" draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and interest in what will eventually be built there reaches a peak on the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports there appears to be little progress at the site six years after the attacks, but developers continue to be optimistic that the Ground Zero redevelopment plan will be finished by 2012.

At street level, it is hard to see the construction effort at Ground Zero.

But look down at the site from above, and the scale of the work becomes clearer. Each day, hundreds of construction workers are literally laying the foundation of lower Manhattan's future.

Six years after the terrorist attacks that changed New York City forever, delays, debate and disaster have all contributed to a perceived lack of progress at the site. The chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Avi Schick, admits that a lack of communication is partly to blame. "For too long in the past, all the various stakeholders sat in their own rooms in their own offices and planned their own projects."

As New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's representative on the redevelopment, Schick assured the assembled media at an unveiling of further design plans that those problems are in the past.

Schick said at the presentation, "As the governor has said, there will be no more false promises and no more false starts."

Indeed, as he spoke on the 10th floor of World Trade Center Seven -- the only tower actually rebuilt since September 11th, 2001 -- work in the large hole below continued.

With the first steel beams of the "Freedom Tower" now in place, Larry Silverstein, the developer with the rights to rebuild at Ground Zero, promises to break ground on more towers in the next six months. "The buildings will reach street level a year after the start of construction, and at that point, steel will rise, and towers three and four will top out in 2010."

Despite all the optimistic talk, there have been setbacks in recent weeks.

Just across the street from Ground Zero stands the former Deutsche Bank building -- heavily damaged by the September 11th attacks. Now under demolition one floor at a time, in August it became a death trap for two New York City firefighters. Since their deaths, the demolition has come to a standstill.

"We don't have a precise date right now about when that work will commence or when it will end. But I will tell you this, we are gonna proceed safely, we are gonna proceed carefully, we are gonna proceed expeditiously, but we will get that wretched building down and we will get it down soon," said Schick.

All the parties involved have their sights set on a 2012 completion date. Lifelike animations show how New York City would look if the current plans reach completion -- a series of towers that gradually spiral down to the permanent memorial to all those who perished that fateful September morning.

Now called the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, the centerpiece of the plan calls for two square voids surrounded by falling water, aptly titled "Reflecting Absence."