Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars survived war and bring the spotlight home
It’s a peculiar thing how it’s often those in positions of the greatest suffering who find the means to extol higher spiritual powers, radiate the brightest light, and dance as though there lies no problem at their feet. Take for example the spiritual songs of slaves, the hymns and folk songs of America during segregation and the anti-war era, or the political songs of South Africa during Apartheid. Music doesn’t just move, it can bolster a movement. So while you might be modest in your socio-economic standing, you can always remain brazenly rich when it comes to melody. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars know this well.
In the beginning, Reuben Koroma recalls, there was one acoustic guitar, a couple of voices (which he declares are “the most powerful instruments”), and improvised percussion culled from bottle stoppers, hub caps and other unassuming instruments found amongst a barren refugee camp landscape in West Africa; DIY in its most organic form. It was 1997 and he, like many refugees, was isolated in harsh conditions as a surrounding civil war bludgeoned his home of Sierra Leone and its people. As the founding singer of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Koroma began feeding a dire need for the simplest and most readily available thing: music.
“As refugees, we lost family members, we lost property, and I was very much frustrated,” he remembers. “I just thought, ‘Well, instead of thinking about what has happened to me, I should find something to do to reform my life.’ So we started singing in our houses, and then I had the inspiration of finding members that I could sing with.”
There’s a weathered sternness to his voice—a man humbled by his experiences but also staunchly confident in his role as an ambassador of a small country that’s recovering from a brutal war that started in 1991 and ended in 2002. In that decade, millions of civilians were herded away from their homes by violence and fear. The All Stars used, and still use, buoyant reggae and Afro-beat juxtaposed with Koroma’s heavy-hearted poetics to de-traumatize—at least momentarily—fellow Sierra Leoneans. As an eight-piece with young Sierra Leonean rapper Black Nature opening, they’ll be bringing that inspiring mix to Moe’s Alley on Friday, May 14.
Koroma and his wife Grace escaped Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown in 1997 because the war between the government and rebel factions was incurring horrendous acts against humanity. It was customary for civilians’ limbs to be rampantly chopped off to keep them from fighting for the opposition, and some original members of the All Stars are amputees themselves. While seeking sanctuary in Guinea, Koroma, Grace and guitarist Franco John Langba casually began to breach the confines of camp life through song, eventually forming an elaborate ensemble. Koroma says that “any time we played and sang, people would come around. They were frustrated too, so music was a treatment that helped them reform their lives. … Then they began hiring us to play parties, weddings, many places.” Eventually, the United Nations took notice and decided that the uplifting work of the All Stars was worth supporting.
“The U.N. saw what we were doing and they decided to buy us a few [pieces of] equipment, which made us more audible,” Koroma says. “We started entertaining many, many hundreds of people. Around 2001, after years of living in camps, we were given two speakers, one generator, two mics, two guitars, and we improvised drums. That’s how we started.”
A documentary film released in 2005, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, reveals their musical plight performing at refugee camps and their return home after the war. Together with a subsequent debut album recorded in a makeshift studio in a tin-roofed shack in Freetown, 2006’s Living Like a Refugee, it would catapult the band into the international spotlight. Since then, the All Stars have brought their live show to international stages, have been guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and are featured on the Blood Diamonds soundtrack. Today, they’re touring on a new sophomore release recorded both in Freetown and New Orleans, Rise & Shine. The band is currently donating 100 percent of proceeds from the sale of its new single, “Global Threat,” to the International Rescue Committee’s earthquake relief effort in Haiti.
Whereas before it was all about using music to get outside of their war-torn circumstances, today it’s about bringing the rest of the world’s attention looking inside of Africa. “Africa has a lot of poverty and a lot of unemployment,” the bandleader begins, “but it has many minerals; we have lots of diamonds, gold, minerals, we have timber, but we still remain poor. I don’t know why. Many people attribute this fault to corrupt politicians. I believe Africa is so rich in minerals, and the culture is also good because we have respect for family life, respect for strangers, all those things. What I want people to know is that Africa needs help; it needs people who can bring new policies to Africa and make it a corrupt-free continent.”
For his part, Koroma plans to continue to sing it like it is to get people dancing and thinking in a forward motion. “To be candid with all of what we’re experiencing, with all the poverty, I think music has helped to keep people alive and happy,” he says. “The new album is titled Rise & Shine, and our vision is that we really think that Sierra Leone will do that.”
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars with Black Nature perform at 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 14, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 479-1854 or go to refugeeallstars.org.
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