He was forced out of his village in Africa because of diamond-fueled civil war. He moved to a crowded refugee camp in Gambia, where he slept on a tarp and survived on cornmeal. He, his father, step mother, and siblings made it to Canada thanks to the UN.
This is the story of Saa Andrew Gbongbor, a Sierra Leonean refugee, a Canadian citizen since July 1st, a student at STU, and a musician.
“It’s for fun, entertainment and also the message. … I’m dancing praises to the most high, praises for the people around me, the people singing and dancing.”
But it was a long journey to get to where he is today.
When Gbongbor was still a child in Sierra Leone, he saw members of his family murdered by rebels. Conditions were terrible and his family got a chance to leave; they had to take it.
“Everybody was terrified in the village. Even if you prepared your meal … (the rebels are) going to come and sit and say oh thank you lets come and eat together. And you have to smile. If you refuse, it’s bad for you.”
But his mother didn’t have the same chance to go. She was captured by the rebels; she’s is a nurse and they needed medical support. She managed to escape during a battle, but Gbongbor hasn’t seen her for 9 years. They’ve talked a few time, but phone service is unreliable where she’s living.
It was 1998 when Gbongbor arrived at the refugee camp. He was 15, and that’s where he got his inspiration to play music.
“When I was back in the refugee camp, what I listened to what a lot of reggae music and other music.
Every day I listen to this and get this radio inside me about life in the refugee camp. That was the only way I could survive day by day. That’s how I started liking music.”
So he started to play music. The Sierra Leonean national airline liked his stuff, and asked him to record a jingle. They loved it, and thought he could do something more. So they put him in a recording studio
“They say just go tell the people to send us the bill. I don’t know how they pay anything; I just go to studio ready to sing.”
Gbongbor calls himself a dance hall reggae and R&B musician. His music has distinct Afro-Caribbean roots, an easy flow, and an upbeat style that makes it hard not to dance.
Saa Andrew, performing for the SHOUT kickoff last year, at the Centre Communautaire Saint-Anne
“Even if you’re sad man, you want to dance.”
He’s played dozens of shows around Fredericton, and has travelled to Nova Scotia and Ottawa. He played a charity show at the Terry Fox Centre in Ottawa, and plays for charity as much as he can.
“I did a show to raise money for the homeless, for Samaria house at officer’s square, for the Fredericton Peace Coalition. … I’m an activist for peace.”
However, even when he’s playing music, Gbongbor says it can be difficult to forget what has happened in his past.
“I always think how my life was. And I think about the people I left behind. So I never stop thinking about where I come from.”
But he always wants to look forward.
“I want to do things that will impact the world in a positive way. I want to help my people back home. And not just my people, everywhere around that word that goes through trouble.”
He’s made quite an impact on people in Fredericton. Tyler Lombard is a friend of Gbongbor, and worked with him on his upcoming CD.
Lombard and Saa Andrew, performing at the SHOUT kickoff
“I think he’s a great person. He’s one of the most genuine, nicest people that I know for sure. He really has compassion for everyone, and I just really couldn’t say enough about the guy.”
The two met years ago when they were both performing at Big Hearts for the Homeless, a fundraiser put on by the Fredericton Emergency shelter. Lombard has been impressed ever since.
“I remember this story, [Andrew] having to watch one of his fellow villagers being killed by rebels. I can’t imagine ever witnessing that and being able to be the same again. But he’s able to talk about it and he’s able to help people learn and educate people.”
In 2004, Gbongbor’s father got a phone call in the refugee camp. It was from a representative of the UN, who said the family would be moving to Fredericton. They had no idea where Fredericton was. They hadn’t even heard of Canada.
“I never thought of coming to Canada. The places I thought about were America, Germany, Russia. … But I was very excited when they said Canada is close to America, I knew it would be a good place,” Gbongbor said.
When his family arrived there was instant support. The multicultural association and people around town gave his family coats, a television and furniture. He told them he wanted to go to school, and they arranged an English language proficiency test. He passed (he already spoke English, Patwa, Kono and Krio), and was enrolled at STU in 2005.
The Multicultural Association also gave him his first gig, and then he did a concert for Canadian World Youth. His third concert was to raise money to help buy his mother a house. It’s finished now, and she’s living comfortably, thanks to her son.
Gbongbor’s hoping to release a CD/DVD combination soon, and he’s filming the music videos now.
Saa Andrew and Brendan Mittelholtz, one of his producers, editing their music video
The first video was a unique site in Fredericton. 8 dancers and three producers, Gbongbor and Lombard, were all over downtown. They moved from the Charlotte street arts center to the market and then to locations around the north side. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the filming, as Celtic dancers, in traditional African dress, moved to Afro-Caribbean beats.
“It was extremely fun.
The market was just packed; everybody wanted to see what was going on. … It was awesome.”
So Gbongbor will graduate soon, with a bachelor of arts in human rights and world history. Then he’ll release his CD/DVD bundle. Then, he hopes to tour the world.
“To play my music and promote a peaceful message. … To promote peace, to promote multiculturalism, to promote love and also forgiveness.
Should I be somebody very bad, to say okay I’m going to retaliate for what they’ve done to my people, to my friends all those things? No, I can’t. So my aim is to promote peace.”