Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars turn war stories into songs of hope

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, who kick off their 26-date North American tour in Nashville, are the subject of a gripping new documentary that screened at the Belcourt earlier this week.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, who kick off their 26-date North American tour in Nashville, are the subject of a gripping new documentary that screened at the Belcourt earlier this week. Unlike many humanitarian-crisis documentaries that take a broad approach—with oodles of statistics and downtrodden throngs—The Refugee All Stars focuses on the experiences of just six people, putting a human face on the tragedy of war that is far harder to ignore.

The musicians—all featured in the film and who lived for years in refugee camps in Guinea after fleeing the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002—have endured unfathomable hardships and brutality. But instead of tugging at heartstrings, the film and the band’s debut CD, Living Like a Refugee, recount the atrocities they’ve experienced with a matter-of-factness and transcendence that reflects the Refugee All Stars’ refusal to let their suffering define their existence.

Despite lyrics that relate the day-to-day trials of life as a refugee (“You will be confronted by strange dialects / You will be fed unusual diets / You got to sleep in a tarpaulin house, which is so hot / You got to sleep on a tarpaulin mat, which is so cold”), the sound is jubilant and invigorating. Blending traditional and modern African musical styles with dancehall and other reggae grooves, the songs are ebullient, pulsating with polyrhythms bathed in warm, organic vocal harmonies. And despite the suffering described in the lyrics, Refugee is a great party album, celebrating the triumph of spirit and faith over adversity.

“Living like a refugee, it’s not easy,” says lead singer and songwriter Reuben M. Koroma near the beginning of the film. “I just took all the problems, the suffering of the people, and make a song of it.... A refugee has lost a lot of relationships. You don’t have no contact. You don’t have no brother.... You don’t have no power, even to be somebody that is to be respected in the community.”

The band is not only on a mission to spread awareness about their experience, but also to inspire hope in their fellow refugees—helping them to find dignity, despite having been stripped of their limbs, their families and the very roots of their identities.

Perhaps even more pointed, though, is the message Koroma conveyed in an interview with the Scene last week. “What I hope to achieve,” Koroma says, “is to let people know that war is not good. The refugee situation is caused by war. The consequences of war are never good for any human beings.” Koroma acknowledges that sometimes those waging war have good

intentions—it’s just that their approach is inherently flawed. “I believe the Americans are trying to propagate democracy, by which the average human being should be free to express his mind,” he says when asked about the war in Iraq. “But what I have to say is that war is not good—ever. I don’t think going to war will ever solve situations. That’s why we sing, ‘When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem a-suffer.’ ”

That sentiment may be considered idealistic by many, though rarely by innocent civilians who have experienced violent conflict firsthand. For instance, band member Mohamed Bangura tells in the film’s most disturbing scene how rebels killed his parents in front of him, then forced him at gunpoint to kill his own child (using a mortar and pestle). Afterward, they cut off Bangura’s left hand. (In addition to the 50,000 to 70,000 people killed during the war, an estimated 20,000 more were deliberately maimed.)

Despite his feelings about the Iraq war, Koroma says his experience with Americans has been overwhelmingly positive. “Americans are many,” he says. “I don’t think I can judge the Americans by one man’s behavior. I have been to America once, twice, thrice. I am judging America according to the behavior of the average Americans. Americans are open. They like people.”

Koroma’s fondness for Americans has been bolstered by his experiences with Refugee All Stars co-directors Zach Niles and Banker White, who also shepherded the recording project. “It’s only because the people I met with, the filmmakers, are very much righteous, honest,” Koroma says. “It’s their attitude that makes me believe that Americans can be good people. I don’t know anything about record labels, or anything. If they had been people who are dishonest or cheats, I wouldn’t have known anything. I’m very thankful to the filmmakers. They are very honest. They showed me all the business.”

Despite the best intentions, humanitarian messages and good music aren’t always easy bedfellows, which makes Living Like a Refugee all the more exceptional. And the companion documentary is as much a testament to the power of faith as it is a story of the plight of the victims of war. While those of us living in comfort and stability have the luxury of wrestling with issues of faith or belief in God, people such as the Refugee All Stars—who’ve had their worlds shattered and witnessed unimaginable cruelty—have a deeper appreciation for faith’s ability to help people endure the greatest hardships. It’s not a belief or religion or philosophy, but a lifeline.

“Religion is just a division,” Koroma says, “but I always believe in God. And I believe all that I am experiencing right now, all that has happened to me, is destiny. It’s God. I was not expecting that I would one day be in America. I was not expecting that I would one day be heard by the Americans. But it all happened because God has really destined that.”

Click here for the entire Reuben Koroma interview and here for a Q&A with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, who’s an avid supporter and fan of the Refugee All Stars.


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