Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars Cope Through Song

Jun. 18, 2009
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The bloody, 10-year civil war in Sierra Leone left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Among the exiled were the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a collective of musicians who met in refugee camps after fleeing Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, and surrounding areas.

Like many refugees, they’d lived through their share of horrors. One member watched rebel soldiers slaughter his father before they cut off his arm. Another witnessed the murder of his parents and wife, then was forced to kill his own infant son.

But when these musicians congregated around an oil lamp at night, scarred from the brutal war and exhausted from the daily hardships of life in a refugee camp, they didn’t sing the type of demoralized songs you might expect. The music they made was vibrant and often downright festive.

“We were trying to produce something that would help us through the trauma, something that heals our body and our soul and is uplifting,” singer and band leader Reuben Koroma explained to me two years ago. “We tried to produce something that would reduce our psychological problems.”

Koroma tries not to dwell on those war experiences, but said sometimes they linger in his mind when he isn’t playing music. The same music that helped him cope with life in the refugee camps now helps him forget about it.

Koroma played music before the war uprooted him, but since the war ended he’s been performing for a much larger audience than he could have ever anticipated, thanks to filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White, who discovered the All Stars in a Guinean refugee camp.

In the band’s bright smiles and joyous music, the filmmakers saw the potential to humanize the Sierra Leone crisis, to pull an inspirational story from a situation so bleak that much of the world had tuned it out. Their resulting documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, made the band media favorites, earning them appearances on CNN, PBS and the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” and an international release for their first album, Living Like a Refugee.

Comprised entirely of songs written in exile, and book-ended by tracks recorded in refugee camps, Living Like a Refugee mixes affable, mostly acoustic roots reggae with wobbly African polyrhythms, and is filled with unexpectedly gorgeous harmonies.

Nearly every song addresses the war in some way or another, but never in explicit terms. “Living like a refugee/ It is not easy,” the group chants on the title track. The sentiment is poignant, but the understatement is almost comical. Other songs remember fallen family members and describe the hunger rampant in the camps, but since the All Stars spare us off-putting details, these hardships sound metaphorical, not literal, like the hunger Bob Marley sang about.

In keeping with the All Stars’ optimistic resolve, the album even has a happy ending. On “Big Lesson,” the group rejoices their post-war homecoming.

“What a big lesson that we have learned,” they sing.  “Let us forgive and forget … This is the time for us to go back home and get some love.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars return to the Pabst Theater on Saturday, June 20 for an 8 p.m. show.


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