All the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars lived in or near Sierra Leone’s capital city before fleeing Freetown during the country’s decade-long civil war. Throughout most of the 1990s, Freetown remained relatively sheltered from the rebel war that had turned much of the West African nation into a bloody battlefield. Near the turn of the 21st century, however, rebels attacked the city and forced a panicked mass exodus to neighboring countries.
Among the thousands who fled were Reuben Koroma and his wife Grace. Reuben and Grace had fared among the best, having fled Freetown in the midst of a rebel attack. In the camps, the couple had one another, but had lost everything else, including contact with family, friends, and the musical life they had known.
Walking through the squalid and dangerous Kalia Camp in Guinea, Reuben found Francis ‘Franco’ John Langba, a ‘musical brother’ from the pre-war music scene in Freetown. Franco had been separated from his wife and kids and had still not been able to learn anything of their fate. In camps like Kalia, discovering someone alive feels like a miracle. But the three took the miracle a step further by making music for their fellow refugees.
Soon, the camp was caught in the middle of the region’s fractious politics, and the defenseless refugees were relocated to Sembakounya Refugee Camp in the remote countryside away from the volatile borders. It was there that Reuben, Grace, and Franco met their future band mates; Arahim ‘Jah Voice,’ so called for his perfect high pitch, who was forced to watch rebels kill his father before they cut off his arm at the shoulder and left him for dead.
Mohammed Bangura had similarly been forced to watch the murder of his parents, his wife, and their infant child before having his hand severed.
Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, called ‘Black Nature,’ is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea where he had fled, Black Nature is considered an ‘adopted son’ by the others.
With the help of a Canadian NGO (CECI) the newly dubbed Refugee All Stars acquired beat-up instruments and a rusted-out sound system and began to play for their fellow refugees, bringing sorely needed hope and relief to a traumatized populace.
At Sembakounya Camp, American documentary filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles along with Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Velan encountered the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.
The first-time filmmakers, both living in San Francisco, had previously had substantial experience in Africa, and were in Guinea looking for stories that would balance the Western media’s focus on the region’s violence with a sense of African society’s beauty and resilience. When they were introduced to the All Stars, Niles and White knew they had found their story.
They ended up following the band for three years as they moved from camp to camp and eventually returned home to face their war-torn country and reunite with family, friends and former band-mates, many of whom they believed may not have survived the violence.
It was during this trip that the current line-up of the band was cemented and their lifelong dream of recording in a studio was realized. It is in such grace notes – and in the warmth, humor, and searing candor with which the band members bear their personal and collective wounds – as well as in the music they make, that the All Stars express their fierce loyalty to each other and to their people, and indeed to refugees of all the world’s terrible conflicts.
They must face the present with courage and the future with hope in order to save their lives. Thus the band’s return to a barely reconstructed Island Studios in Freetown, while the devastation and a shaky peace treaty signed in 2002 keep many refugees away, comes as a powerful message of renewal.
On September, 26th 2006, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (SLRAS) realized what once seemed an impossible dream when Anti Records released their album Living Like a Refugee, to wide critical acclaim throughout the world. The album was recorded with the help of filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White throughout the film’s production from August 2002 – October 2005.
Living Like a Refugee was produced by the film’s musical director, Chris Velan and each song is an original composition written during their years in exile. Featuring field recordings from the refugee camps in Guinea as well as studio efforts at Sam Jones’ Island Studios in Freetown (as seen in the film), these 17 tracks tell the story of life in the camps (“Living Like A Refugee”).
Enduring the horrors of war (“Kele Mani,” “Weapon Conflict”), facing hunger (“Bull To The Weak”), remembering lost family members (“Ya N’Digba” was written for bandleader Reuben’s mother) and yet still managing to give thanks (“Compliments For The Peace”). While each of the stories in these songs is told from the band’s personal experience, it is the special gift of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars that the messages they deliver are truly universal. Taken as a whole the album serves as a musical document of the band’s incredible journey.
The title track, ‘Living Like A Refugee’ was recorded by the light of an oil lamp in Sembakounya Refugee Camp in Guinea, West Africa. Playing on impossibly worn instruments, the band sang and laughed into the night – healing and being healed through their music.
Other songs were recorded in a Freetown studio during the band’s first trip back home. These are joyous full band realizations of songs that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars had been practicing throughout their time in exile and were brought to life with the help of their pre-war friends and band mates from The Emperors Dance Band who they reunited with during the course of filming the documentary and have now become permanent members of the band.
Living Like a Refugee was first sold independently on the film’s website and at film festival screenings. Niles and White would send 100% of sales back to the band in Sierra Leone. They also produced cassettes for the band to sell in Sierra Leone where they quickly became a sensation. As the film continued to grow so did the album’s popularity.
In 2005 Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were nominated in the category of ‘Best New Artist’ at The Sierra Leone music awards and played their hit Soda Soap for a crowd of 15,000 at the National Stadium in Freetown. But that was only the beginning. When both the film and the band were invited to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Film Festival in Austin, Texas in March ’06 it was an opportunity the filmmakers couldn’t refuse. So once again pushing their credit cards to the max Niles and White brought the entire band to the US.
At SXSW the band was a huge hit winning over fans and the music industry execs alike. Around this time, Niles and White realized that to build on this success they needed help. Calling in music industry veteran, Mike Kappus and his Rosebud Agency to help book more shows and eventually to manage the band’s budding career. A summer 2006 tour took shape and Kappus contacted Anti Records who after seeing the film and hearing the music agreed to release the album.
Now Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars tour the world spreading their message of peace and love in a “can’t help but dance” show that fans from all musical backgrounds can enjoy. For a group that started in a remote Guinean refugee camp and only started touring outside of West Africa less than a year ago, they have come a long way. In the past year the band has appeared at some of the most prestigious music festivals worldwide including Bonnaroo, The Montreal Jazz Fest, The Ottawa Jazz Festival, The Folk and Roots Festival in Chicago, The Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, as well as headlining at Central Park Summerstage.
In November, 2006 the band opened for Aerosmith at the Mohegan Sun Arena and most recently performed for an international audience at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
They have also been featured on CNN and CNN International, PBS and CBS Sunday Morning, as well as having performed live on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Their sound is also finding new avenues of exposure including a song in the film Blood Diamond and two humanitarian relief compilations, which they recorded in the studio with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler.
The second album from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars came out in 2010. Rise & Shine features an uplifting blend of reggae and African grooves with a touch of New Orleans spice.
Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, Angélique Kidjo, Michelle Shocked, Rickie Lee Jones and Ozomatli), Rise & Shine was recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone and New Orleans, Louisiana. Much like the band, the residents of New Orleans know both the bitterness of exile and the redemptive power of music, and the spirit of the Crescent City permeates this uplifting album.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars also recorded a special version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” exclusively for the Putumayo collection Tribute to the Reggae Legend, released in July 2010.
Living Like a Refugee (Anti, 2006)
Rise & Shine (Cumbancha, 2010)
Radio Salone (Cumbancha, 2012)
Libation (Cumbancha, 2014)
DVD: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (Docurama, 2007)